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About the author

Jonathan de Roo
Jonathan de Roo

I’m a man. I like speed! I drive my car fast. I hate waiting but I always pick the wrong row in the supermarket. Same thing applies to my research. I’m a chemist and I have to do chemical reactions but can’t stand slow reactions.

So what can we do about it?

Before we answer the question, you need to understand that there is not much of a difference between chemistry and cooking. In both cases, you search for a recipe or you craft one yourself. The recipe tells you which ingredients are required. For my chemical reaction, you need hafnium chloride and benzyl alcohol.

According to the recipe, you need to mix these and heat them up in an oven at 220 °C. And then … wait… three days.  Three loooong  days.

So what can we do about it? Think! At home, if you want to heat food really fast, you don’t use the ordinary oven (so passé), you take the microwave. So why not microwave my reaction to speed it up? Well, that’s a bad idea, as chemical reactions in the microwave happen to explode once in a while. That’s why many chemical labs are buying today a specialised, explosion-free microwave (€ 30,000). This is what such a device looks like

 microwave

It is somewhat expensive but when I put the reaction in this microwave, it was completely finished in just three hours. The graph puts this into perspective with the 72 hours needed in an ordinary oven. This is a huge difference and justifies the investment.

If we transfer this microwave concept to the chemical industry, this could lead to an enormous reduction in time, money, energy input and CO2 emissions.

Good for me, industry and the environment!

So what’s the secret? For that, remember the first time you put a frozen lasagna in a normal oven? After a while you saw a tasty crust and you thought “ok, it’s done”. You took it out, put your fork in it and, it was still stone cold in the middle… That’s because an oven provides heat from the outside, which means the middle is cold unless you wait a very long time; see the picture with the temperature profiles.

microwave 2

This makes it possible to form such a delicious crust but chemically speaking a crust is just burnt food. However, we don’t want our chemicals to burn. Unlike the oven, the microwave heats from the inside out. So it’s hot in the middle but not on the edges. That’s why the microwave heats much faster. In addition, no crust is formed in the microwave, so we don’t burn chemicals, only producing what we desire.  Now, what did I make in the microwave? Hafnium oxide nanoparticles. Here is a picture of them.

 microwave 3

As I told in previous posts, nanoparticles can be used to improve superconductors, to generate hydrogen fuel or to produce better solar cells.

If you want to know more about microwaves and how they work watch the video below:

How a Microwave Oven Works by engineerguy

 

In conclusion, just remember there is essentially no difference between a cook and a chemist, and both can accelerate their reactions with a microwave