Celebrating Planet Earth


The planet Earth is our shared home with a vast number of other living organisms, so it is humanity’s duty to try to conserve it the best we can. To promote awareness of the necessity of keeping our planet healthy, people around the world celebrate Earth Day annually on April 22. In celebration of this ideal to keep our planet clean, chemists from all around the island of Puerto Rico gathered in El Paseo de La Princesa, in Old San Juan, San Juan, to highlight “The Wonders of Water,” this year’s American Chemical Society (ACS) Chemists Celebrate Earth Day theme.

Members of different ACS clubs throughout the island got together and prepared more than 20 tables with exhibits and demonstrations involving the physical and chemical properties of water, as well as explaining the importance it has not only for us humans, but for every other living being on our planet. Natives, tourists, and club members all had the chance to participate.

Students from the Specialized School in Science and Math Thomas Armstrong Toro in Ponce couldn’t miss this amazing opportunity. Ten students from the school’s ChemClub set up and helped at the school’s table, explaining the experiments and demonstrations. The explanations were fitted to the audience, from explaining to children how water and oil “don’t get along” to discussing cohesion and adhesion with advanced participants. It was also imperative that the students spoke both English and Spanish, allowing them to communicate efficiently with not only the natives, but tourists from other countries as well.

Three demonstrations that stood out were:

Surface tension

Participants were urged to attempt to float a paper clip in a cup of water. A few were able to achieve this. Here a student explained how best to do it, as well as how the liquid is able to keep the paper clip afloat.

Oil and water

Oil and water were put in a clear glass and food coloring was added. After this, an Alka-Seltzer tablet was placed in it. In the water, the tablet reacted to produce carbon dioxide gas. Bubbles of carbon dioxide gas carried droplets of water upward through the oil, producing an effect like a lava lamp. Children were urged to take home a small test tube with the mix with their parents’ permission. A version of this activity is online at Lava Lamp.

Soft and hard water

The procedure was to mix water with magnesium sulfate in a water bottle, leave another water bottle full of water intact, and then add dishwashing soap to both. The participants were asked if, after shaking the bottles vigorously, they knew which water was the hard water. Many noticed how the softer water had much more bubbles than the hard one.

The conservation of planet Earth should be one of the most important things on our agenda these days, as each day pollution worsens the situation for everyone. We all have to remember that our one little drop of water can make an enormous difference in a sea of people, and we can all contribute to a better world, one way or another.

Testing the Waters

One big environmental problem that seems a little distant from the Prince of Peace ChemClub in Clinton, Iowa, is a large “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, near New Orleans. The American Chemical Society (ACS) Illinois–Iowa Local Section gave a $100 grant to purchase testing materials to test creek and storm-drain water samples from the Clinton watershed for nitrates and phosphates. We wanted to know if Clinton is contributing nitrates and phosphates to the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone.”

Water samples for testing.
An assortment of water samples and recycled containers.

Why nitrates and phosphates?

In the coastal area where the dead zone is, high levels of nutritional nitrates and phosphates help algae over-grow. When the algae finally die, they settle and are decomposed by aerobic respiring bacteria. As a result, dissolved oxygen in the water gets used up, and there is not enough oxygen for fish—making it a dead zone.

Why Iowa?

Nitrates and phosphates get to the coast via the Mississippi River. Environmental Protection Agency testing has found that it’s the Upper Mississippi, above St. Louis, that contributes most of the nitrates and phosphates. These chemicals are routinely used to fertilize crops, especially nitrogen-greedy corn. Iowa.

Students tested the samples with LaMotte water-testing TesTabs. These tests use chemicals that change color: pink-orange for nitrates and blue for phosphates.
Students tested the samples with LaMotte water-testing TesTabs. These tests use chemicals that change color: pink-orange for nitrates and blue for phosphates.

What did we find?

The Prince of Peace ChemClub and all of the high school students collected water from creeks and run-off ditches all around Clinton to test on Earth Day. Nitrate was absent in drinking water, but detectable in waters running off into the river, ranging from 5 to 35 parts per million (ppm). All water samples, including drinking water, had 1 to 4 ppm phosphate. Test results showed that the Clinton area is adding nitrates and phosphates to the Mississippi River. Students used Google Earth to get the GPS coordinates of their water sample sites, so the data could be reported to the IOWATER online database. It was a great Earth Day, with some cool Chemistry.

The team of water testers.
The team of water testers.

Has your ChemClub tested local water? How do your results compare?