Pupils treated to RSC live chemistry show

The annual Christmas lecture gave the children a dramatic chemistry lesson, with plenty of flashes and bangs!

Nearly 900 pupils from 21 senior schools, as well as a number of home-schooled children, recently gathered in the Bolton School Boys’ Division Great Hall to witness the wonders of chemistry as part of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) Christmas Lecture. 

Bolton School annually hosts the event, which showcases a series of experiments live on stage to two audiences. This year, teachers Jim Street and Rebecca Williams and technicians Peter Jackson and Nadin Gravit from King’s School, Macclesfield, gave the presentation.

They began with a brief ‘sound and light check’: a set of quick-fire chemical flashes and bangs to prepare the audience for the rest of the lecture. Jim and Rebecca then navigated a speedy series of experiments and explained the chemistry behind each one along the way.

They created differently coloured flames using solutions made with metals like strontium, copper and potassium before showing off the powerfully exothermic thermite reaction. Experimenting with liquid oxygen, they burned cotton wool, monster munch, and a single biscuit – creating ever more dramatic gouts of bright orange flame each time! 

Moving seamlessly from flashes to bangs, they fired a number of bottle rockets around the hall by filling each one with hydrogen, and showed the difference between a mix of hydrogen and air, and hydrogen and pure oxygen. 

Pupils were amazed by how far the bottles could fly and were excited to try and catch one at the far end of the Great Hall. They were also delighted to see and hear the hairspray-powered ‘bazooka’, which fired a tennis ball across the hall and some ping-pong balls into the air. 

Experiments with different types of alcohol returned the presentation to flashes as the pupils enjoyed the dramatic effects of whoosh bottles, including the thrill of a double whoosh bottle. One of the most interesting reactions was the exploding water bubbles: filled with pure oxygen rather than air, instead of simply bursting when popped by a flame, these bubbles exploded with a very loud bang!  

The presentation then moved from hot to cold with Jim and Rebecca showing the properties of liquid nitrogen. They used it to create the biggest bang of the day by sealing some into a plastic bottle and dropping it into warm water, forcing the liquid to turn to gas and expand, exploding the bottle. The finale of the presentation was a series of flashes and bangs, first set off by a fire trail, then triggered by a flamethrower, to the delight of the audience.

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