Fascinating fluorine: Leicester chemist isolates ultra-reactive element for YouTube video

Posted by mjs76 at Jul 16, 2010 01:20 PM |
Amazing demonstration for Nottingham University video project.

Our colleagues over at the University of Nottingham have a terrific project called The Periodic Table of Videos: 118 short YouTube videos about each of the individual elements from hydrogen to ununoctium. Having reached the end of the current periodic table, where 'elements' only exist for nanoseconds inside particle accelerators, they are going back and improving some of the earlier clips.

We mention this here because Professor Eric Hope, from our Department of Chemistry, features in the brilliant new video about fluorine, which you can watch on the Periodic Videos site or on YouTube.

The previous fluorine video didn’t actually, er, show any fluorine. In fact Professor Martyn Poliakoff, the hugely knowledgeable and experienced (and wild-haired) Nottingham academic who presents the videos, admits that even he has never seen the element in its pure form.

So Professor Poliakoff* and his camera crew recently came over to Leicester where we have a long history of world-leading research into fluorides and one of the UK’s few set-ups for the safe handling of fluorine.

As Professor Hope explains in the video, the reason why hardly anyone has ever seen pure fluorine is not because it’s rare but because it is unbelievably reactive. It will react, often quite violently, with all but two of the other known elements (fluorine has sometimes been called 'the Tyrannosaurus rex of the periodic table'). Apparently you can’t even store the stuff in glassware because just the absolute teeniest amount of moisture will react with the fluorine, forming hydrogen fluoride – which can dissolve glass!

Nevertheless, our own fluorine expert Professor Hope is able, in the video, to extract pure fluorine gas using the equipment here at Leicester and then cool it to liquid form. He also demonstrates its massive reactivity by feeding cold fluorine gas over various other elements – including charcoal briquettes (carbon) - which spontaneously ignite. It’s an impressive way to light a barbecue but, obviously, not a terribly practical one.

There is also a second YouTube video of deleted footage from the principal clip in which Professor Hope explains the workings of the Leicester fluorine equipment (originally designed by this week’s honorary graduate Emeritus Professor John Holloway).

*Yes, he’s the film director’s brother.