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Inorganic Chemistry

Why Sodium And Potassium Really Explode In Water

Inorganic Chemistry: High-speed photography and modeling reveal that classic reaction gets its oomph from sudden repulsion between alkali ions

by Mitch Jacoby
January 27, 2015

Credit: Philip Mason and colleagues
This split-frame high-speed video shows that the intense explosion of alkali metal droplets (Na/K alloy, top frame) on contact with water (first viewed from above the water surface, then below) is mediated by rapid formation of tiny spikes on the Na/K droplet surface. Water droplets (bottom frame) do not form spikes and do not, of course, react violently.

For decades, science enthusiasts have delighted at the famously energetic way sodium and potassium explode on contact with water. Researchers in Europe now show that the long-accepted explanation for the way that process unfolds is incomplete (Nat. Chem. 2015, DOI: 10.1038/nchem.2161).

Chemists have long thought that tossing a chunk of alkali metal into water, a time-honored tradition still practiced by some lecturers and many chemistry thrill seekers, causes an explosion because the metal dissolves, generating an extreme amount of heat and transferring electrons to the water. The dissolution step also generates steam and forms hydroxide ions and hydrogen, which can be ignited, making the process even more energetic.

Some researchers have puzzled over how the process can occur so quickly, though. They recognized that the steam and hydrogen generated early on in the reaction should form a buffer layer over the metal surface and impede water from continuing to react.

To sort out the mystery, chemists Philip E. Mason, Pavel Jungwirth, and coworkers at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, in Prague, along with colleagues at Braunschweig University of Technology in Germany, studied the process with ultrafast photography and computational techniques.

A number of factors, including sample surface cleanliness and temperature, can prevent chunks of alkali metals from exploding on contact with water. The team eliminated those variables and others by using a sodium-potassium alloy that remains liquid at room temperature and a droplet delivery system featuring a calibrated syringe.

The team observed that within a fraction of a millisecond of making contact with water, the Na/K droplets form numerous spikes that protrude into the water. Molecular dynamics analysis indicated that nearly instantaneous transfer of electrons from the spikes to the water rapidly generates positively charged alkali ions, which vigorously repel and cause a so-called Coulomb explosion. It is the speedy manner in which that process propagates and generates reactive metal surfaces that triggers the overall explosion.

The researchers have figured out many of the key aspects that enable this highly exothermic reaction to become explosive, rather than self-quench, says Stephen E. Bradforth, a chemistry professor at the University of Southern California. He adds that the “beautiful” high-speed photography showing extremely rapid development of long metal spikes and the role of Coulomb explosions at the interface is “quite provocative.”

Michigan State University emeritus chemistry professor James L. Dye notes that explosions of overcharged droplets in the gas phase have been known since the work of Lord Rayleigh in 1882. He says that anyone who has done or seen this classic demonstration will appreciate the “graphic detail” of the reaction mechanism and the visuals provided by this study.

Credit: Nat. Chem.
Numerous metal spikes protrude from a millimeter-sized droplet of a Na/K alloy milliseconds (ms) after it makes contact with water. These spikes, which do not form on water droplets (right column), participate in alkali metal explosions.


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Mark Mumby (March 18, 2015 10:12 AM)
Why haven't they tried to directly measure the coulombic effect using a wire going to a meter since the NaK is building up this charged state with the spikes forming?
Zero Credibility (May 13, 2017 8:37 AM)
As in using a wire to detect electron flow? Do you mean as a follow-up experiment or in the original experiment?

The interference/influence of the wire in the experiment would create another variable that could interfere in the results. Understanding such processes, especially where we don't already have basic details, requires first isolating the process as much as possible, creating a closed system where we can say "this particular reaction is the product of only variable A (e.g. the Na/K) interacting with variable B (e.g. The water)." . The wire wouldn't be an inert or passive/exclusive factor in the experiment (or external to he system), interacting with the electron flow.

For the above reason Using the wire would have to be a follow-up experiment - although such a follow-up would need to determine the effect of the wire and meter on the reaction and take parameters such as wire metal and proximity into account with any readings.
(September 22, 2016 2:45 PM)
Hi, I'm Tyleah Waters and that video was so cool to see. The best thing ever probably.
Nicholas (November 13, 2016 5:37 PM)
Why is it black in colour?
Ayine Gordon (January 21, 2017 2:38 AM)
how this react in flooded lab,when potassium and sodium are present.
Googulator (August 7, 2017 4:02 PM)
An interesting aside: Researcher Philip E. Mason is the YouTuber Thunderf00t. On his channel, he talks at length about how ultimately his whole research into alkali explosions was started on YouTube.
Steven C. Mayers (August 31, 2017 5:43 AM)
There has just been an announcement of violent explosions at a factory in Arkema near Houston. Entire area flooded by hurricane Harvey. Is this a chemical factory with stored Alkali metals????
Melody Bomgardner (August 31, 2017 1:59 PM)
Hi Steven,
Thanks for the question, C&EN is following this story. The short answer is no, the cause lack of refrigeration needed to keep organic peroxides cool. The plant lost power due to the tropical storm. As the stored peroxides warmed, they degraded and became flammable.

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