What ever became of James Burke's little spheres?
May 9, 2012 6:49 PM   Subscribe

In the final episode of James Burke's "Connections", he describes a secret experiment mixing CuSO4 and NaOH, and the potential uses for the result. That was the late 1970s--I am curious what actually happened since then.

I was just re-watching James Burke's original "Connections" series. If you haven't watched Connections, I highly recommend it. I think it is one of the most perfectly executed productions I have ever seen, and it bears several re-watchings because you will inevitably fall off track from some rapidly moving historical trajectory and miss something, but also because the more you watch it the more you realize how incredibly thought out every single shot, angle and scene is crafted (the most famous being the rocket launch narration, but I won't spoil that for you with a description).

Anyway, in the last episode of the series, "#10 - Yesterday, Tomorrow and You," Burke is explaining the various levels of understanding technology and science and uses a chemical reaction to demonstrate this. The scene I am talking about is right here in the episode.

He demonstrates the mixture of two liquids, which has the unusual result of producing little spheres. I am fairly certain that he states that the two liquids in the mixture are CuSO4 and NaOH.

The experiment to produce "those little spheres" was being conducted at "Harwell" by the Atomic Energy Authority. Burke seemed to imply that the work was secret and that he is only allowed to tell you a few things. A few of the potential uses he says are to:

1) produce more efficient nuclear fuel
2) to help find oil
3) to put a drug in your body to allow it to act at a certain time
4) determine if your blood vessels are working properly or not

The series aired in the late 1970s, so there has been a lot of time since they started producing those little spheres. Since I know so little about chemistry, I am curious about what this "secret" reaction was, and what exactly--if anything--came about from that research.

I am guessing for (3) that maybe the little spheres were like those seen in time-release medicine capsules, and for (4) it is like some of those tests where they inject these nano-balls into blood to see if there are internal bleeds, or holes, or perforations. I guess the same thing could be how (2) is used? I have no guess for (1).

My limited blind googling around led me to believe that the reaction was Copper Sulfate and Sodium Hydroxide, and perhaps the result was Copper Hydroxide--which led me to Dupont Kocide, which is some sort of copper fungicide/bactericide. Although, if 1-4 turned out to be false, and the final result was a plant fungicide, than that would fit in just perfectly with all the random mistakes with fortunate results that the entire series features.

As a bonus question from the same episode: at this point right before showing the little spheres, Burke is standing on a catwalk above spent fuel rods at a nuclear power plant. Is that safe or is that insane (though I can see him taking that risk for the perfect shot)?
posted by This_Will_Be_Good to Technology (8 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I love James Burke and Connections!

IANAChemist, but I do know that sodium is colossally reactive; I'd expect it to replace the less--vigorous copper in the copper sulfate, producing copper hydroxide and sodium sulfate. Sure enough, that appears to be the answer, as you found.

How that results in more efficient nuclear fuel, oil exploration, timed release, and circulatory function evalution? I suspect Burke might be speaking about the fruits of colloidal chemistry, or even just chemistry in general, rather than specifically about CuSO4 + NaOH => NaSO4 + CuOH. Or perhaps one of the four substances is related to the reaction, and the others are produced via similar reactions. I don't know that for certain, but it seems probable since a) there are doubtless cheaper ways to produce NaSO4, and b) I think copper is too toxic to have floating about in one's blood stream as a diagnostic technique or a drug ingredient. So that one reaction doesn't appear to be useful for all four products.

As for exposure to the spent fuel rods, I like to think that Burke is smart and scientifically literate enough that he would not film in their presence if there were a significant health risk in doing so. Of course, duration is a factor in radiation exposure, so he might have gotten a quick shot and gotten out of there with little harm, and I agree that he would happily film such a "dangerous" shot in order to make the show more compelling.
posted by richyoung at 7:24 PM on May 9, 2012

He also calls them "examples of advanced 19th century colloid chemistry". On Wikipedia the phrase "colloidal chemistry" redirects to the article "interface and colloid science", unfortunately just a stub. The current text of the article in its entirety:
Interface and colloid science is an interdisciplinary intersection of branches of chemistry, physics, nanoscience and other fields dealing with colloids, heterogeneous systems consisting of a mechanical mixture of particles between 1 nm and 1000 nm dispersed in a continuous medium.

Interface and colloid science has applications and ramifications in chemical industry, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, ceramics, minerals, nanotechnology, and microfluidics, among others.

There are many books dedicated to this scientific discipline, and there is a glossary of terms Nomenclature in Dispersion Science and Technology, published by the USA National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
posted by XMLicious at 7:24 PM on May 9, 2012

On the second question, a properly-maintained spent-fuel pool will be more than deep enough for the water to absorb the radiation from the fuel rods.

According to the Wikipedia page, about 8 feet of water is the minimum for this, and the typical depth above the rods is about 26 feet. Also note the various pictures of people standing around or above the pool without significant protective gear. You might not want to sleep overnight on the catwalk, but I don't think there was any meaningful risk in taking that shot.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 7:51 PM on May 9, 2012

Best answer: The product of the reaction is copper hydroxide. I suspect the real secret is the concentrations and other reaction conditions that give you the little self assembling spheres rather than what exactly the spheres are made of. There seem to be publications on Copper Oxide Micelles and other nanoparticles (third link is far and away the most interesting) so I think he's talking about nanotechnology in general but glossing over the details since it was the 1970s and all of this stuff was still in the "Hey, I bet we could...." phase of things. Some of it may be in widespread use now and we just take it for granted.

Oh, and on sodium. Sodium metal doesn't hang around for long as sodium metal, particularly in the presence of water (or moist air). Na+, the ion you get from sodium hydroxide, or table salt for that matter, is pretty much content to be Na+. In fact, if you have a container of sodium hydroxide solution (or salt water, for that matter) it actually contains no sodium hydroxide (or salt). Just Na+ ions and OH- (or Cl- ions as the case may be). Here's a great short essay by Issac Asimov DOC on the subject.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:19 PM on May 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

On the second question, a properly-maintained spent-fuel pool will be more than deep enough for the water to absorb the radiation from the fuel rods.

That might be simplifying it a bit much. To expand a little, the water can't absorb the radiation, just a (large) percentage of it. Gamma interaction with matter is a probability (influenced by the wavelength of the photon and the mass of the matter). Much like how no particular amount of half-lives gets you to completion of nuclear decay, no particular amount of shielding gives you complete shielding.

Presumably the properly maintained pool reduces the radiation exposure on the catwalk to within the regulatory levels for nuclear plants. The exposure limit takes a form of X dose per year per worker, but that's not all that helpful here because for all we know, the exposure on the catwalk could be high enough to deliver a year's dose in an hour (better set up cameras quickly and get the shot in one take!), or it might be low enough that it would take two years to exceed the annual dose limit. In the hour scenario, Burke doesn't work at the plant so it doesn't matter to him if he hits his annual limit and can't return to the site until the next year.
AFAIK the annual limit is high enough that if hitting it each year, a statistical increase in health issues would be expected, but low enough that this increase should be extremely minor and difficult to detect. Much smaller than, for example, the occupational hazards of being an electrician.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:59 PM on May 9, 2012

Best answer: This_Will_Be_Good: "As a bonus question from the same episode: at this point right before showing the little spheres, Burke is standing on a catwalk above spent fuel rods at a nuclear power plant. Is that safe or is that insane (though I can see him taking that risk for the perfect shot)?"

I can't speak for spent fuel rods, but I have walked the catwalk over a running nuclear reactor, and looked down into the pool and seen Cherenkov radiation with my own two eyes. I don't recall exactly how long we were in the reactor room, but it was on the order of minutes, and I don't recall anyone expressing any anxiety over radiation dosage. During the tour of the Penn State reactor, we didn't even have to wear film badge dosimiters.

posted by namewithoutwords at 6:42 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you also watched The Day the Universe Changed? Also good.

You know, I would try to contact Mr Burke himself for this question. I'd bet he'd love it. Not that I know how to go about getting his email, but there's got to be some PR person to reach, right?

If you get an answer, I'd love to find out what it is, as I remember the final episode, too.
posted by vivzan at 7:46 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the input. Maybe I will track down Mr. Burke himself -- I didn't realize he was still alive and kicking!
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 9:41 PM on May 22, 2012

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