I’m going to take a little detour from my usual rant to talk about something completely badass and fascinating and awesome and that everyone should do (especially if you have kids). Last year I got really, really excited about the crap I was learning in school but had no outlet for it. My labs while claiming the title of “experiments” were far from experimentation. Structured down to every milliliter and gram, there was absolutely no freedom to let creativity soar and learn some of the more fascinating aspects of chemistry and physics. So I decided to do a little experimentation of my own. I went online to see what kind of stuff I could order and was absolutely amazed that most of the stuff my labs were ordering I could buy too (for far less than the price of a college education). It was much more fascinating too, to be able to just run free and break some rules, do some things I may later regret without liability to anyone else. So when the sixteen ounces of bismuth came in the mail, I whipped out my lab goggles and stepped into my condo’s kitchen.
Bismuth, the heaviest stable element, just past lead on the periodic table and right before polonium, is the ingredient that helps keep your diarrhea down in that pink nasty chalk water. Boasting low toxicity, and a half-life a billion times the age of the universe, it can be handled safely with little concern. Bismuth melts at a relatively low temperature at 520 degrees Fahrenheit, no challenge for a household stove. Not wanting to mess up my cookware and stove, I moved to a granite counter top and used my camp stove. I fashioned some “pots” out of metal water bottles and banged the bottoms in with a hammer to make them crucible shaped.
As you can see, I kind of did this half-ass but hey I was excited.
The amazing property of bismuth though is not its low melting point. It is what it does when it cools. Bismuth, because of its electron orbitals, forms beautiful stair-step pattern crystals that glisten because of an oxide coating. Electron orbitals look like balloon animals spitting off of a nucleus. What happens is the initial atoms bind to a nucleation site and then passing atoms join on as they lose energy or cool. The atoms that are losing energy are stabilized by certain interactions with the electrons of other atoms and thus they are more likely to settle at that location. Once that location has an atom bound to it, another site becomes more favorable. As the energy of the entire system decreases as it cools, these atoms bind and bind and bind eventually forming visible crystals. The slower the solution cools, the more time the atoms have to bind at the lower energy places, and the better the crystal. What results, with adequate time, is absolute perfection. You let this metal cool and with no hand of our own, it settles into perfect ninety degree angles in minutes, something we can’t create with our own hands even if tried all day.
The fascinating thing about this is that with these crystals, and even snowflakes on our glove in the winter, is that we are granted a glimpse into the world of the extremely small. We access, for a moment, with a little bit of patience and diligence, a world that cannot even be witnessed with the fanciest of our microscopes.To me, that is goddamn awesome. And a kickass metaphor too.
The process for creating bismuth crystals is simple. You melt the entire ingot in some sort of pot, then let it cool slowly. Slowly can mean just a few minutes or half an hour, whatever your tools allow for. For me and my kitchen lab, I was looking at a few minutes. As the bismuth cools, a small solid layer forms on top of a liquid below. The crystals begin growing from the bottom and the solid top acts to insulate the cooling liquid below. Leave that solid for a time and then, after the crystals have adequate time to sprout, break a hole in the superficial layer and then pour the remaining liquid into another container. The crystals will have formed on the bottom and to see them you only need to let it cool to room temperature and crack off the top. Bismuth is extremely brittle so be careful not to break your crystals but also know that you can just crack off the top with your hands. If the crystals are not up to par, melt down that same mass and try it again, adjusting the times and temperatures.
So now that I have gone through the basics of it, I’ll show you some of my creations. My crystals are nowhere near as extravagant as the lab grown ones but still incredible to watch form in my own kitchen.
When I look at the lab grown crystals I feel like a goddamn moron for what I put together. So here’s a taste of what the professionals can do.
Some people use these crystals as jewelry but seeing as they are super fragile, I don’t recommend anything beyond sitting on a counter top to look at. I highly recommend buying an ingot online and seeing for yourself. It’s damn cool and fairly cheap. I bought a pound of it from a shop online, Rotometals. So whip out the camp stove, fashion yourself a crucible, and grow some beautiful crystals.