Chapter 3 Chemistry


Everything there is to know about chemistry – excerpted from “Everything you need to know about school” in the September 16, 2008 edition of the Seattle periodical The Stranger:

Stuff is made up of different arrangements of atoms; atoms are made up of nucleus surrounded by buzzing electrons. The outer shell always wants to be filled with eight electrons. So, any arrangement that gets you there – sodium with chloride, oxygen with two hydrogens, carbon with four chlorides – will work. This is why the periodic table has eight columns and helium (with eight outer electrons of its own) doesn’t explode. Some arrangements adding up to eight shared electrons are happier than others. Chemical reactions rearrange from less stable to more stable arrangements on their own, giving off energy in the process. To make a less stable arrangement, you have to put in energy as payment. Chemistry is simply accounting: You must not gain or lose atoms at any point. Ignore the nuclear physicists at this point.

As suggested by this quote, chemistry is the study of matter (stuff) on an atomic scale. It is relevant to industrial instrumentation because so many industrial processes rely on specific chemical reactions to achieve desired outcomes, and we must use instruments to monitor and regulate these chemical reactions. Chemistry can be a confounding subject of study, principally because it seems to defy any simple rule. Many of the “rules” learned by chemistry students, such as the rule of eight electrons referenced in the humorous quote, are not general and in fact only apply to certain elements in the Periodic Table. It should be noted that helium is actually an exception to this rule (an atom of helium only has two electrons, not eight – but at least the quote was correct in saying helium doesn’t explode!). It should also be noted that only a small portion of the Periodic Table has eight columns – most of the table in fact has eighteen columns.

Perhaps the most accurate portion of the quote is where it tells us atoms are never lost or gained in a chemical reaction: every atom entering a reaction must somewhere exit that reaction. This simple rule goes by the clumsy name of stoichiometry and it is inviolable for all practical purposes. Chemistry, therefore, is the shuffling of atoms between different arrangements which we call molecules.

Chemistry is the study of matter: in particular how and why atoms join with one another to form molecules, and the processes by which molecules may be formed and re-formed. Any process where atoms either join with one another to form molecules, or break apart to become individual atoms, is called a chemical reaction. Applications of chemistry abound, from the formation of rocks and minerals in the Earth to industrial processes to the processes of organic life itself. Chemistry plays a particularly important role in industrial instrumentation in the form of devices called analyzers which exist to measure concentrations of certain chemicals. Analytical instrumentation is essential for industrial processes such as wastewater treatment, combustion, and fermentation to proceed safely and efficiently. Analyzers are also essential for quantitatively tracking pollutants emitted by industrial processes.

Like so many other areas of physical science, the patterns and limits we see in chemical reactions are dominated by two fundamental laws of physics: the Conservation of Mass and the Conservation of Energy. The particles of matter comprising atoms have the ability to store energy in potential form, and their tendency is to “seek” states having the lowest available energy1 . The arrangement of electrons around the nucleus of an atom is largely dictated by the tendency of electrons to “prefer” stable energy states, and so is the formation of molecules (atoms bonded together): electrons seeking energy states least liable to disturbance. The rest, as they say, is mere detail.

We exploit this property of energy storage in the fuels we use. Atoms bound together to form molecules are in a lower energy state than when they exist as separate atoms. Therefore, an investment of energy is required to force molecules apart (into separate atoms), and energy is returned (released) when atoms join together to form molecules. The combustion of a fuel, for example, is nothing more than a process of the atoms in relatively unstable (high-energy) fuel molecules joining with oxygen atoms in air to form stable (low-energy) molecules such as water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2).

Natural gas, for example, is a relatively stable combination of hydrogen (H) and carbon (C) atoms, mostly in the form of molecules with a 4:1 hydrogen-to-carbon ratio (CH4). However, when placed in the vicinity of free oxygen (O) atoms, and given enough energy (a spark) to cause the hydrogen and carbon atoms to separate from each other, the hydrogen atoms strongly bond with oxygen atoms to form water molecules (H2O), while the carbon atoms also strongly bond with oxygen atoms to form carbon dioxide molecules (CO2). These strong bonds formed between hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen in the water and carbon dioxide molecules are the result of electrons within those atoms seeking lower energy states than they possessed while forming molecules of natural gas (CH4). In other words, the electrons binding hydrogen and carbon atoms together to form natural gas are at higher energy states than the electrons binding hydrogen and carbon atoms to oxygen atoms to form water and carbon dioxide, respectively. As those electrons attain lower energy states, they difference of energy must go somewhere (since energy cannot be created or destroyed), and so the chemical reaction releases that energy in the forms of heat and light. This is what you see and feel in the presence of a natural gas flame: the heat and light emitted by hydrogen and carbon atoms joining with oxygen atoms.

The Law of Mass Conservation plays an important role in chemistry as well. When atoms join to form molecules, their masses add. That is, the mass of a molecule is precisely equal2 to the mass of its constituent atoms. Furthermore, the total mass is unaffected when atoms separate and then re-join to form different molecules. In our natural gas combustion example, the mass of the CH4 molecules plus the mass of the oxygen atoms they combust with precisely equals the sum total mass of the water and carbon dioxide molecules produced by the combustion. Another way of saying this is that all mass entering a chemical reaction must equal the mass exiting that same reaction. Chemical engineers apply this principle when they calculate mass balance in a chemical process: accounting for all mass entering and exiting the process based on the safe assumption that no mass will be gained or lost.

Too many other practical applications of chemistry exist to summarize in these pages, but this chapter aims to give you a foundation to understand basic chemistry concepts necessary to comprehend the function of certain instruments (notably analyzers) and processes.

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