Picture-Perfect Chemistry

With school back in full swing, the winter holidays are fading into memory (spurred on by the appearance of Valentine displays on December 26). Christmas, more than any other holiday for me, is an occasion to bring out the camera. Lots of photo opportunities: the craziness of unwrapping gifts, capturing the kids in their holiday finery, saving memories of families coming together.

But when the camera came out this season, I had something extra brewing in the back of my brain—the ACS ChemClub 2013–2014 photo contest. When I help work out the language and details of these annual contests, I sometimes imagine what I would put together as an entry if I were a ChemClub student member. What did I see in my December surroundings that shouted “Chemistry!” to me that I could try to capture with my camera and admittedly amateur skills?



Offer me a box of assorted chocolates, and a cordial cherry would not be the first I’d reach for. But the chemistry—oh, the chemistry. The April 1987 issue of ChemMatters has a nice description of how enzymes are used to make the liquid center of these candies. The rest of the family loves them, so while I took just one for a photo op, they enjoyed the rest of the box. Maybe that sort of photo would fit in the contest’s “Chemistry in Your Life” category.

Years ago we swapped our large ceramic bulb Christmas tree lights for tiny LEDs. Besides reducing the possibility of the bulbs drying out the tree or overheating, the energy consumption is greatly reduced. I love to sit and enjoy their colorful glow (that beautiful visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum) in the dark—an entry for the “Colors of Chemistry” category?















Find further inspiration for the “Close-Up Chemistry” category at a special board on the ACS ChemClub Pinterest page, along with general ideas at the newly-launched Chemical & Engineering News site “Chemistry in Pictures.”

Contest details were in the ChemClub December 2013 resource packet and can also be found on the ChemClub Advisors page. Don’t delay—the contest ends March 15.

Where do you see chemistry? Show us. Capture it. Share it.

Holiday Chemistry—Pin It!


I’m a recent convert to Pinterest. It allows you to create your own virtual bulletin boards and fill them by “pinning” images that then link back to the websites you wish to remember. It’s a way to collect web content you like, with the visual pop of the images to help you remember what you pinned. I’m slowly populating my boards with pins, but often I’m more interested in using the site to see what other people have pinned. In particular, I’m curious to see the pins that connect to chemistry. Something that’s cropped up lately with the holidays fast approaching are pins to borax crystal ornaments.

What’s the chemistry? You make a supersaturated solution with boiling water and borax powder, then suspend a shape you’ve twisted out of pipe cleaners in the solution. The bristles of the pipe cleaners offer lots of places for the borax to crystallize as the solution cools and can no longer hold as much of the borax in solution.

After a quick stop at the Dollar Store for pipe cleaners (decided on sparkly gold), I grabbed my box of 20 Mule Team Borax from the laundry room, and got started. Snowflake shapes are highly popular on Pinterest, so I started there. Here’s a summary:

  1. Cut a 12-inch pipe cleaner into three equal pieces.
  2. Use one piece as the center. Twist a second piece around the first to form the “arms” of the snowflake. Repeat with a third piece, for six symmetrical arms.
  3. Tie a string to the tip of one of the arms.
  4. Take a wide-mouthed glass jar or beaker. Suspend the snowflake in the chosen container so it does not touch the bottom of the container by tying or taping the other end of the string to a pencil that rests across the mouth of the container. Temporarily remove the pencil and snowflake from the container.
  5. Prepare a supersaturated borax solution—Boil tap water, then measure it by cups into the container. For each cup of water in the container, add 3 tablespoons of borax powder. Stir well. Borax powder may remain at the bottom of the container.
  6. Place the snowflake in the container again, with the pencil resting across the top of the container.
  7. Move the container to a place where it can remain undisturbed overnight. (Check out a close-up of the gorgeous results up top!)
Placing the snowflake into the supersaturated borax solution.
Placing the snowflake into the supersaturated borax solution.
After sitting overnight, a beautiful collection of crystals.
After sitting overnight, a beautiful collection of crystals.

A quick search on Pinterest showed a huge variety of shapes to try—borax crystal rainbows made with colored pipe cleaners, monograms, beautifully-elaborate snowflake designs, hearts, the American flag, candy canes, shamrocks, a Halloween spider, an Easter egg, stars, icicles, and even crystallizing the borax onto feathers. I love the idea of adapting it to fit other holidays and uses.

Looking for other holiday chemistry resources? Visit the latest ACS ChemClub Activity of the Month “Holiday Chemistry” or follow ACS ChemClubs on Pinterest!

Do you integrate holidays into your Club and classroom? What are some of your favorite resources?