Element Collection + Display Update

Gotta say, the collection is simultaneously the easiest thing ever and the largest pain in the rear. On one hand, you can purchase just about every element in pure or semi-pure states for $10-40 for a few grams. On the other hand, some are stupidly hard to get or can potentially be extremely dangerous.

At the moment, I’ve collected pure forms of the following (in no particular order):

Uranium, Thorium, Copper, Germanium, Silicon, Mercury, Tin, Selenium, Gadolinium, Carbon, Zirconium, Aluminum (Aluminium for you chemists), Gold, Platinum, Tellurium, Arsenic, Cobalt, Cadmium, Iron, Antimony, Vanadium, Erbium, Magnesium, and Halfnium.

In secondary samples (non-pure forms or in trace amounts): Radium, Radon, Plutonium, Polonium, and Florine.

The Hard Part

You’d think that the “hard part” of the collection is finding and paying for some of the more expensive elements. What amazed me is that some of the more expensive or scarier elements are the easiest to obtain. Gold is around $30/gram and can be bought from most coin shops. Uranium (depleted anyways) can be found for $30-40/gram.

Turns out, the hard part is figuring out how to store elements.

Radium Painted Watch Hands

Radium Watch Hands Temporarily Stored in Vials

My adventures here started when I decided my next elements should be osmium and iodine. Let’s start with Osmium. Osmium is a shiny, slightly blue metal with an almost bizarre super power – it’s oxides can evaporate at room temp and the fumes cause blindness. While it is likely okay to simply store it in a glass vial with a lid, I don’t want someone (drunk friend, friend’s kid, etc) to open it up to take a look and get hurt.

Iodine is a different monster. While it is caustic, this element’s magic power is that it likes to escape…from anything. If I just stick it in a glass vial, it will end up seeping through the glass or cap into the surrounding area, staining all surfaces it touches purple, red-orange, or blown depending on what it contacts.

In both of these cases, I would like to isolate the material in a glass ampoule before placing it in a glass vial. In the case of the osmium, this should keep oxygen off of the surface and osmium oxide inside. For iodine, we are playing the numbers game.

Simplified, if some percentage of the particles can make it through the glass ampoule and another percentage of those can make it out of the vial, then only a small bit can make it through both. For example, if 2% can make it out of the ampoule per year and 4% make it out of the vial per year, then we’d only have 2% * 4% = .08% would escape both together. (Disclosure – Yes, I know about vapor pressure and concentration differentials, but I’m not going to setup and solve a multi order differential equation for this post, heheh).

Borosilicate Glass Blowing On A Budget

So here we are. We are going to seal several samples in glass. Cursory looks on Youtube show this to be pretty simple. Just stick your chemicals inside a tube, stick the tube in a flame, and wait for magic to happen. In reality, it wasn’t that easy.

I started off deciding that I wanted to use borosilicate glass (sometimes just called “boro glass”). For those unfamiliar, this is the type of glass used to make Pyrex-brand glass used in kitchens and labs worldwide. What makes this stuff fantastic is that it is relatively immune to heat stress. For my purposes, it means that I should be able to heat it in a flame to melt it and not have to worry about the glass shattering. Boro glass is also fantastic because it reacts with very, very few materials.

Borosilicate glass has a ~3000 degF, so with that in mind, I need a very, very hot torch. The first thing that comes to mine is an oxygen and propane or oxygen and acetylene (oxyacetylene) torch as they get rather hot without breaking a sweat. Unfortunately, living in an apartment makes storing large bottles of fuel a bit of a hazard. My landlord allows for up to two one-pound canisters of fuel….so….an oxygen+fuel mix is out.

The next option I found was the Bernzomatic TS8000 torch with MAP gas. According to their marketing material, the torch gets up to 3700 degF. Because OBVIOUSLY, 3000deg F < 3700degF, I was certain I had a plan and I sent away for a couple different types of boro glass tubes and picked up the torch and fuel…

Glass Blowing with TS8000 Torch

Glass Blowing with TS8000 Torch

And OBVIOUSLY, it worked! Right?!? WRONG! I failed badly. While the torch was hot enough to soften the boro glass enough to deform it, it didn’t soften it enough to be workable. I was able to bend the ends of the tubes and kind of get one to seal, but the results were awful. What I forgot is that glass doesn’t melt like ice or butter and doesn’t actually have a real melting temperature. While an ice cube goes directly from a hard solid to liquid water instantaneously as it melts, glass just slowly gets more “goopy”. It acts a lot like honey or maple syrup. So while my torch was hot enough to soften the glass, it wasn’t quite hot enough. Darn. The dumb thing is that I knew this – a lot of 3D printing plastics have a similar property including ABS which I used exclusively for my first 8 years or so of 3D printing.

Showing boro glass not fully melted

Slightly Melted Boro Glass

Soda Lime Glass FTW

Until I can get a hotter torch, I’m stuck with working with “softer” glasses. So….soda lime glass it is. In a nutshell, soda lime glass is run-of-the-mill glass used for everything from window pane glass to Grandma’s trinket collection. It usually starts melting at around 1700degF which makes it a good candidate.

So sources…. Unfortunately for me, searching for “soda lime glass tube” didn’t turn up much. I found a lot of capillary tubes used for blood work and not a lot else. After some more searching, I stumbled across two possible sources that I figured might work for me. The first were disposable culture tubes that cost about $20 for a pack of 250 tubes. The second source was from junko eye droppers – with the home apothecary/essential oil craze, it is super easy to find glass eye droppers online for dirt cheap.

After some hiccups with shipping, I finally got both sets of tubes in and started to play around with them. I found that I was able to easily melt both types of tubes pretty quickly. The next step was to see if I could melt something inside the tube without heating it up too much. To do this, I rolled up little pieces of newspaper and shoved them to the bottom of the tubes. I figure that the paper will start to burn at around 450degF (thank you Ray Bradbury) and will char a little below that. After a couple tries, I was able to seal a tube without blowout from expanding internal gases.

Glass Ampoule Tests with Paper Scraps

With that accomplished, the last step is to be able to seal the tubes *shorter* than they come stock. Since I don’t currently have a glass tube cutter (one is on the way), I decided to try to “cut” the tubes by heating them midway and then use needle nose pliers to pull out the top. A thin tube is left behind which can then be severed with the flame. I was able to shorten a couple test tubes and an eye dropper without much ado, although they turned out a little ugly. The failure rate of this was pretty high, unfortunately. Either I would get the glass adjacent to the sample (paper) too hot the insides OR the concentrated heat in one spot would shatter the glass.

While I’m sure I could get the technique down pat over the course of a couple hours, I think that my current approach is a waste of time for two reasons: 1) With the failure rate as high as it is, I don’t want to put a dangerous and/or expensive sample in it and risk loss/damage. 2) My torch as a very, very broad flame (aka a fluffy flame). This makes it extremely difficult to do precision work. I think if I am to do this kind of glass work, I need to get a lampworker’s torch and find a friend to store gas canisters.

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