Posts Tagged ‘how to’

Why is Potassium gas Green?

June 18, 2011

So my interest was really spiked here when I found that when reacting with water, potassium gives off a green gas!

While the green of potassium gas has been known about for over a century, being found in Encyclopedia Britianica articles as far back as 1911, the origin of that green color is proving a little more elusive.

If you know what you are doing it’s relatively easy to observe.  250 mg of potassium is ‘the right’ scale to work with.  Much smaller and it’s all over before you get a chance to do anything, much bigger and you run into problems with the metal exploding, or the hazards of hydrogen build-up.  All you need is a heavy glass vessel of about the dimensions of a wine glass.  Insert a burning acetone taper through a small hole in the top of the vessel and to burn out all the oxygen, and then drop in your potassium.  The green color is easily visible.

I’m tempted to propose it’s due to the solvated electron, which is a hot research topic at the moment as it’s part of the principal mechanism by which radiation damage happens to DNA.  It’s known to be stable and blue in liquid ammonia, but survives only picosecond in water.

A bead of Sodium Potassium alloy in anhydrous liquid ammonia. The blue colouration is due to the presence of solvated electrons

It’s an interesting suggestion, but I think the observation that you get the green color when there is no water around pretty much kills this idea.

So how do you get a green gas.  Well the only other metallic gaseous vapor I’ve seen was mercury which I once boiled to test the calibration on a thermocouple.  That has no color at all that I can remember.

Well as you will recall virtually all the gases are colorless, e.g. all the Noble gases (helium, argon etc) and all the first period gases (nitrogen, oxygen, and mostly fluorine).  However the heavier halogens have colored vapors that get more heavily colored as you go down the group.  Chlorine, light green, bromine, brown etc.

Chlorine (left) and bromine (right).

The reason these gases have these colors is the same reason the sky is blue, Rayleigh scattering.  That’s related to the polarizability of the molecule.  This is a very different mechanism from the electronic transitions that give the classical flame colors of the alkali metals!

It’s well known that all the alkali metals have stable bound states as diatomic molecules, similar in electronic configuration to hydrogen.  IF K2 had a similar polarizability to Cl2, it may well be green like chlorine!  Regrettably finding the polarizability K2 is not as easy as it sounds.  A significant difference between H2 and K2 is the bond energy.  H2 has a bond energy of about 400kJ/mol, while K2 has a bond energy of ~50kJ/mol.  For reference, the hydrogen bond, the thing that holds water together as a liquid, has a bond energy of ~20kJ/mol.  If you heat any bound state and eventually the species will gain enough energy to separate and become individual species.  With water this happens at about 100 oC (boiling, ~400 K).  For hydrogen it’s about 3000 K.  You can actually do the real calculations, it’s just I’m too lazy at the moment, and so I’m just going to do a linear extrapolation between these two.  That gives K2 breaking up at about 2-300 oC.

Well that would fit nicely with green gas being evolved at lower temperature, but as the temperature rises, the diatomic species break up, and the relevant polarizability of the molecule, and hence the Rayleigh scattering, and hence the color is lost.

Great, so if this is a working hypothesis, then the diatomic metals should match their corresponding halogen right?  The bummer is sodium.  Sodium gives off a blue vapor when it boils.  Fluorine is almost colorless.  ARSE!

The game is not over yet!

I’ve decided I need to see sodium vapor for myself, but how to do it with only the junk I have to hand!  What I really need is a nice small sealed silica tube that can take temperatures over a thousand degrees C.  Hmmmm, thinking, thinking…..

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