What combination of these materials will create a cool reaction?
February 23, 2013 12:13 PM   Subscribe

Chemistry-buffs, please help! I'm trying to figure out how to create as destructive a chemical reaction as possible (something along the lines of an acid eating through a base) using only limited materials. For story purposes, this reaction has to be created by using some combination of the following materials only:

Silver or Gold
Sodium Carbonate
Potassium Carbonate

PLEASE NOTE: I can't add any other materials, such as hydrogen peroxide or whatnot-- it had to be some combo of the above materials only.

The more violent the reaction the better, with the goal of having the mixture destroy/eat through one of the above materials. For example, merely taking the patina off copper is too weak a reaction to work for my story.

Water and Fire may be employed, but it can't be an experiment requiring any actual laboratory equipment, i.e. it must be simple enough to perform in the wild.

posted by np312 to Science & Nature (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Your only hope here is to make a battery and utilize the electricity. But it isn't going to be much of a battery. (See e.g. Volta's Pile.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:26 PM on February 23, 2013

Best answer: The strongest acid in your list is vinegar. Which is considered a weak acid. The lye is a strong base, and combining it with the vinegar would produce an exothermic reaction that would "eat up" the vinegar. But that mixture wouldn't "eat through" any of the metals above.
posted by telstar at 1:01 PM on February 23, 2013

Best answer: The carbonates, salt, silver and gold are all pretty inert in the grand scheme of things.

The Ox/Redox reaction between iron oxided and aluminum (assuming they are both in fine particles is pretty spectacular and can be used to both mend and cut. (Note - the ridiculously long fuse is not needed - it's in fact, kind of hard to get going. I've had good luck with an inch or two of magnesium ribbon.)

There are other ox redox reations that, while they don't produce molten iron as a product, do release quite a bit of energy. Zinc and sulfur are pretty exciting, for example, so brass instead of bronze? The question in any of these is one of time because, as has been stated, acetic acid isn't all that strong.

The Pirotechnia of Vannoccio Biringuccio, De Re Metalica by Georgius Agricola and Cave Man Chemistry by Kevin Dunn are some good go to sources for what you can make out of rocks, dirt and sea weed.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:12 PM on February 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You're not going to get the kind of reaction you want out of this because you don't have any decent oxidizers there. Lye is powerful but lye is a reducer and all the metal is already reduced. As the others have said, acetic acid is not a powerful oxidizer, and it's a very dilute solution anyway in vinegar.

If you want that kind of reaction, you're gonna need a decent acid: sulfuric, hydrochloric, hydrofluoric, nitric, something like that. Acetic acid just doesn't cut it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:42 PM on February 23, 2013

You might want to look at the lead chamber process (it can be done as the glass bottle process) for making sulfuric acid. (He talks about this in caveman chemistry.)

The thing about anything I'm describing, though, is that it takes a lot of time and won't be subtle, so if your characters are trying to do their work in some kind of haste (or between when the guard peeks into their cell) there is no chance of that.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:34 PM on February 23, 2013

There are ways to get from sulfur to sulfuric acid, but I don't know how effectively you could make that happen.
posted by Good Brain at 9:05 PM on February 23, 2013

You have to burn the sulfur and bubble the fumes through water. Pretty much requires special equipment. You aren't going to do it "in the wild".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:25 PM on February 23, 2013

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