What’s That Stuff? The Chemistry Behind Everyday Products

Geek Culture

Go ahead, try this at home. Image: Kathy CeceriGo ahead, try this at home. Image: Kathy Ceceri

Go ahead, try this at home! Image: Kathy Ceceri

Right around the time I started writing for GeekDad, I embarked on an adventure of learning about chemistry at home with my kids. Since I’m the type to obey any warning about using things only as directed, this was a giant leap for me. By the end of the year, though, we had performed more than 30 experiments, most of which were pretty cool, and we hadn’t even burned a hole in the kitchen counter.

So imagine my delight at being contacted recently by Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly magazine published by the American Chemical Society. They have a wonderful little column called “What’s That Stuff?” that looks at what’s really in things like Silly Putty, self-darkening sunglasses, Cheese Wiz and artificial snow. This week, they’re examining the chemistry of hand warmers, those little packets you can stick in your pocket or shoe to keep your extremities warm in winter weather. And it turns out that when you Google “hand warmers” and “chemistry,” one of the first results is the experiment the kids and I did on our blog Home Chemistry!

As we discovered, the kind of hand warmers we were investigating contained iron powder, which quickly began to rust when exposed to air. Ignoring the warning (!) and opening the packet lets in more oxygen and speeds up the reaction, creating so much heat that your iron mixture will start to smoke. (Since we didn’t have lab glassware, we did our experimenting in a small canning jar designed to be heated.) After the reaction cooled down, we also played around with the iron powder using a magnet, which made it act a little bit like ferrofluid.

Check out the column on hand warmers and if you want, try our experiment at home. Believe me, if I could do it, you can too!

(Kids and parents who are interested in chemistry will also like the ACS’ video podcast, ByteSize Science.)

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