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Chemistry-style fun and games

by Alex Scott
August 2, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 30


Gaming the system

Photo of black and white cards from the game 18 Electron Rule.
Credit: d-Orbital
Game time: d-Orbital has developed chemistry games to boost learning and make it fun.

Zach Thammavongsy, a postdoctoral fellow studying inorganic chemistry at California’s Chapman University, is gaming the chemistry education system. And the Newscripts gang is loving it. No, he’s not bending the rules, rigging, abusing, or cheating the system for personal gain. Rather, this pedagogical pragmatist is fast becoming one of the most prolific creators of educational chemistry board and card games for everyone from college students to five-year-olds.

Thammavongsy set up his chemistry game company, d-Orbital Games, so named after the orbitals of transition metals that are most involved in chemical reactions, in 2017, after raising $800 from a crowdfunding initiative.

Since then, d-Orbital has gone on to create six games, including Rare Earth Elements, Slap Count, and Tar Project. The company’s most popular product is 18 Electron Rule, a card game designed to help inorganic chemistry students with their valence electron counting for a metal complex. It’s based on blackjack, also known as 21. In this game, ligand and metal cards must be paired to reach the stable valence electron count of 18.

Chemistry gaming enthusiasts—usually teachers—can either download a PDF of the game and print out the cards for free or pay $14.99 for a professionally produced pack of cards. Hard-core players can pay a further $9.99 for benzene poker chips.

As with most of d-Orbital’s games, 18 Electron Rule came about because Thammavongsy noticed his students were struggling in an area of learning. In this case, he saw the need for a quick and easy way of reinforcing students’ electron counting skills. “In developing the game, I talked to a lot of colleagues and my PhD adviser on how to design it,” Thammavongsy says.

When Thammavongsy isn’t teaching or running a reaction in his lab—he was synthesizing a silicon catalyst when Newscripts called—you might just find him cooking up an idea for his next chemistry game.

More than 3,000 chemistry gaming enthusiasts from 84 countries visited d-Orbital’s website between July 2018 and early 2020. The company has also sold more than 500 boxed board game sets.

Despite rising sales, d-Orbital isn’t currently a money maker. Thammavongsy, though, isn’t in it to fill his pockets, but to discover about learning and teaching and to share an understanding of chemistry. That makes him Newscripts’ favorite personality type: a game changer.


Battery ‘Jenga’

Photo of a tower of blocks representing the molecules in a battery.
Credit: University of Birmingham
All work and some play: Towers of blocks representing molecules in a battery can be a useful teaching tool.

Brick by brick, a team of researchers from England’s University of Birmingham have created a novel version of the collapsing block tower game Jenga as a teaching tool to explain the workings of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

The team of five researchers created a variety of tower blocks to represent different components for rechargeable batteries. In one model, a tower represents an oxide electrode and its blocks represent lithium, while a second tower represents a graphite electrode with its blocks being blanks. In this game, “lithium” blocks are taken out of one tower and inserted into the other to represent a lithium-ion battery charging and discharging. The researchers outlined how their approach can boost understanding of batteries in a recent issue of the Journal of Chemical Education (2020, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c00282).

It wouldn’t be Jenga if it didn’t topple though. This can occur in battery Jenga in a number of different ways, including when too many lithium blocks are removed from between layers of cobalt oxide blocks. This is synonymous with overcharging, which in a real battery can trigger a breakdown of cobalt oxide layers. That breakdown releases oxygen, which can then oxidize the electrolyte resulting in a battery fire. Newscripts thinks it’s a fun new take on chemistry education, and a safer way to learn about battery failure than the real-life exploding phones and laptops of a few years ago.

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