Christmas Chemistry

    Kids, did you ever think of the Christmas tree as a chemical kind of plant? The wood of most any tree can be separated into two major components. They can be thought of as the "hard" and "soft" parts, which are the fiber (hard) parts and the oils and other soluble parts (soft). The hard or structural part of wood has very long molecules called polymers. They are cellulose (almost half of the wood is cellulose!) and lignin. Cellulose is the major ingredient in paper. The soluble parts of wood are extracted and separated using methods that chemists have developed. Think of the colors and flavors that are "extracted" from a steeping tea bag. Extracted oils from a spruce tree give turpentine, pine oil, and resins. There's only a tiny amount of pine oil (or alpha-terpineol), but it gives a pine tree it's distinctive Christmas smell.

    Now for snowflakes. It all starts with a tiny particle of soil, ash, or dust in a cold cloud. Around this a hexagonal (six-sided) ice plate forms. A hexagon is the favorite shape of water molecules in an ice crystal lattice. The corners that stick out are better at catching other water molecules than the edges. Because the growing ice crystal is tumbling in the cloud, and sees different temperatures and saturation levels, an infinite variety of growing snowflake patterns are possible. Hence, no two snowflakes are alike!

    Finally, here's a silly song, sung to the tune of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". (Yes, chemists know that pure iron is a silvery metal, but when it rusts you get a red iron oxide).

    Iron the Red-Tinged Atom

    There was Cobalt and Argone and Carbon and Fluorine
    Silver and Boron and Neon and Bromine
    But do you recall the most famous element of all?

    Iron the red-tinged atom
    Has a very shiny orbital
    And if you ever saw him
    You'd enjoy his magnetic glow

    All of the other molecules
    Used to laugh and call him Ferrum
    They never let poor Iron
    Join in any reaction games.

    Then one inert Chemistry eve
    Santa came to say
    Iron with your orbital so bright
    Won't you catalyze the reaction tonight?

    Then how the atoms reacted
    And combined in twos and threes
    Iron the red-tinged atom
    You'll go down in Chemistry! 

    Please note:  All chemicals and experiments can entail an element of risk, and no experiments should be performed without proper adult supervision.


    Kathleen Carrado Gregar, PhD, Argonne National Labs 
    [email protected]
    December 2001


    References: for "Swedish Christmas Chemistry" and for many "Chemistry Christmas Carols".