DIY solvated electrons

22 April 2011 - Chemistry for poor people

Do read the Journal of Chemical Education for a wide range of practical advice on how to run an affordable laboratory if you represent a cash-strapped secondary school or if you are into clandestine chemistry. On offer this month: affordable solvated electrons for urgent Birch reductions. The official method requires liquid ammonia and sodium or potassium metal, very official-looking laboratory glassware and too many safety regulations.

The relaxed method favored by Ibanez et al. (DOI) requires household chemical ammonia solution in a babyfood glass container which is heated to 40°C together with hardware-store grade caustic soda. Evolving ammonia gas is passed through drinking straws (and cooled with computer-cleaning spray) to a U-shaped tube (PVC plumbling?) cooled in a styrofoam coffee cup containing a piece of alkali metal. But where to get the metal! In true MacGyver spirit the authors simply pry open a lithium battery and extract the lithium. One ammonia/metal solution coming up!