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Category: Chemistry - Ask Dr. Volt!
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The Pauper's Theater
  
Ask Dr. Volt!
 
Befuddled by physics?  Stymied by science?  Then ask Dr. Volt!
 
Dr. Volt, certified Mad Scientist, will take your questions, scrutinize them over a Bunsen burner, and post the answers here!  You can also search the archives for answers to past questions.
 



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Protons and the atomic number


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Rocky asks, "Can the number of protons in an atom ever be different than what is given on the periodic table?"


An excellent question, Rocky, which gets at what makes an element that element. The atomic number gives the number of protons in a single atom of that element (which also gives the usual number of electrons in that element to balance out the total charge). An element must have that number of protons, or else it simply is not that element anymore. If an element gains (fusion) or loses (fission) protons, it becomes a different element altogether. This is what happens, for example, in the fusion process in the sun. Two atoms of hydrogen (essentially just single protons as the electrons are stripped away at such high temperatures) fuse into a single atomic nucleus and give off energy in the process. Left over is an atom with two protons. In other words, helium.


So, Rocky, while an element can have different numbers of neutrons (isotopes) or electron (ions), they can only have the number of protons given on the periodic table. Thank you for your question!

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Carbon atoms in glycerol and pyruvate

Greetings!

I've been taking a short sabbatical following the completion of my Mad Scientist Training Academy at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, but have no fear, Dr. Volt, certified mad scientist, has returned to continue to take your questions.

Today's question comes from Lily who asks, "How many carbon atoms there are in glycerol and pyruvate?"

Well Lily, this is actually a very simple question indeed. All we need to do is look up the molecular formula of each chemical to determine the number of carbon atoms per molecule. Glycerol's molecular formula is C3H5(OH)3, which gives it three carbon atoms per molecule. Pyruvate is an ionic form of pyruvic acid. Pyruvic acid has a molecular formula of CH3COCOOH, while pyruvate's molecular formula is CH3COCOO-, but both have a total of three carbon atoms per molecule.

Thank you for your question, Lily!

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What is the periodic table of the elements?

Kate S. asks, "Dr. Volt, can you please explain the periodic table of the elements? Why does each element have a different atomic mass?"

An excellent topic, Kate! Let's start with the question of atomic mass and the related atomic number. Each element has a unique atomic number which gives the number of protons (positive charge) found in its nucleus. The simplest element, hydrogen, has only one proton and thus an atomic number of 1. Atomic mass takes into account both the number of protons in an atom, but also the number of neutrons (no charge). Atomic mass, however, is not necessarily the same for all atoms of an element, because many elements have different isotopes, which means they have a different number of neutrons. For example, most carbon atoms have an atomic mass of 12 - 6 protons and 6 neutrons. But some carbon atoms have more neutrons, for a total of 8. These atoms then have an atomic mass of 14, but still an atomic number of 6. Carbon-14, as it is called, is radioactive and will ultimately decay, and thus is not found in as large of quantities as everyday Carbon-12.

So why is the periodic table arranged as it is? To start with, in addition to the protons and neutrons in its nucleus, an atom also consists of one or more electrons which orbit the nucleus. The electrons are negatively charged, and so to balance out the atom's total charge an atom will normally have the same number of electrons and protons. The chemical properties of a particular element are greatly affected by the way that the electrons are arranged. Quantum mechanics tells us that no two electrons in an atom may exist in the exact same state, and this leads to the electrons arranging themselves in different "shells," or layers. The first electron shell can hold up to 2 electrons. Hydrogen, with just 1 electron, thus has its electron shell half full, while Helium, with 2 electrons has its shell completely full. The third element, Lithium, has its first shell filled with 2 electrons, followed by 1 electron in the next shell, and so on with all the other elements.

The number of electrons in an elements outer shell are a major facto in determining the element's chemical properties, as atoms "like" to have their outer electron shell full. Thus an atom with just 1 electron in the outer shell will bond most easily with an atom whose outer shell is missing 1 electron. The first atom can then share the electron with the second, and they both then are "happy" with what looks to them like a full outer shell. Elements such as Neon, however, where the outer electron shell is completely full, are chemically inert as they don't feel the need to share their electrons with anyone else.

So as you move horizontally across the periodic table, this corresponds to the filling of the electron shells: the first element in a line has just 1 electron in the other shell, the last in a row has a full outer shell. The elements in each vertical line on the table are thus chemically similar because they have the same number of electrons in their outer shell. There are other factors, of course, which also affect the chemical properties of an element, but it is the filling of the electron shells which gives the periodic table its basic shape.

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Does mold grow on peanut butter?

Sarah P. asks, "Dr. Volt, why doesn't mold grow on peanut butter?"

Oh dear, Sarah, I hope that you are not eating any strangely-colored peanut butter thinking that this is the case! In fact, peanuts are susceptible to certain molds which can then produce a particularly dangerous chemical called aflatoxin, which is a carcinogen believe to cause liver cancer. However, most major brands of peanut butter contain sufficient preservatives to prevent the growth of molds in the finished product for weeks or even months without requiring refrigeration (assuming the jar is kept tightly sealed). But eventually the peanut butter will go bad and can become quite dangerous to eat. Natural peanut butters do require refrigeration, as they lack the same preservatives (the oils also tend to separate and can go rancid).

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What is Fire?

Gretchen K. asks, "Dr. Volt, can you please explain fire?"

Well, Gretchen, fire is actually a complex series of chemical reactions termed exothermic, which means that the reaction emits energy as heat. The burning of a fuel then releases latent energy present in the fuel, transforming it from chemical potential energy into more useful forms: in this case heat and light. The color of fire depends both on the heat of the fire (bright yellow flames are hotter than orange flames) and the fuel source used (for example, the blue flame that results from burning natural gas).

Fire requires three elements: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Once a fire starts it becomes a chain reaction that will continue as long as its three requirements remain present in sufficient quantities to sustain the reaction.

Byproducts of the fire include carbon dioxide (CO2), which results from the combination of oxygen in the air with carbon in the fuel source. Soot is carbon that remains unburned; ash is also remnants of the fuel source that haven't burned. A very efficient fire (such as results from the burning of flash paper) will leave little to no soot or ash behind. Other byproducts of the fire will depend on the chemicals present in the fuel source.

The shape of flames is affected by gravity – NASA has learned that in low or zero gravity environments flames becomes spherical, although these flames can quickly go out because the carbon dioxide generated does not disperse well and can smother the flame.

Thank you, Gretchen, for such a scintillating question!

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