Many chemists will recall the simple undergraduate chemistry demonstration showing transition metal ions in aqueous solutions having a variety of colours. These colours can vary with the oxidation state of the metal, with Vanadium compounds in particular appearing purple, green, blue, and orange at four different oxidation states. I was always amazed by these demonstrations, with the rainbow of colours seeming like magic. The more I learned about these transition metal compounds and had the opportunity to do the experiments myself, and with that gained better understanding of the underlying chemical magic of these complexes, the more I knew that I wanted to continue to explore this beauty in chemistry.
One such experiment that I did in an undergraduate advanced inorganic chemistry laboratory at Simon Fraser University was the synthesis of vanadyl acetylacetonate. This synthesis involved the reduction of vanadium pentoxide in the +5 oxidation state to the +4 oxidation state of the vanadyl acetylacetonate product. As sulfuric acid was added to the suspension of vanadium pentoxide, there was that moment of rainbow magic again. What had started out as a bright orange suspension in an instant transformed into a deep blue solution. I took this photo at the final step of the synthesis, where the crude product was purified by a simple sublimation. I chose to highlight this image in the CIC ChemiSTEAM blog because it represents more than just a simple synthesis.
In this synthesis, we attempted a sublimation of our crude product as an alternative to the usual purification of vanadyl acetylacetonate that involves the recrystallization from dichloromethane and ether. This was a conscious effort to change the synthesis towards methodology that incorporated principles of green chemistry. By making this switch, we tried to make a safer and more efficient synthesis that avoided using dangerous solvents and reduced the waste. I captured this close-up of the sublimed crystals in their vibrant blue and chaotic crystalline texture that showcases this attempt. I was also happy to capture the dark decomposition products that not only show a great visual contrast, but are also representative of the imperfect nature of experimentation. The yield was not 100%, the reaction conditions were not optimized, but this simple deviation from the reaction procedure represents what is the essence of experimentation in making changes with positive potential.
My laboratory instructor for that class Dr. John Canal was always on the lookout for green chemistry initiatives that could be implemented in the teaching labs. As students, we were encouraged to think beyond the instructions in our lab manuals and attempt new ways of experimentation. He often spoke of wanting to create a learning environment that would allow the next generation of chemists to grow an appreciation for green chemistry, and carry that appreciation forward in our chemistry careers. I am grateful to Dr. Canal for the opportunity and encouragement to experiment and deviate from set methods, and to seek to improve and discover new pathways to unlock the magic and art of chemistry.
I would also like to thank the Chemical Institute of Canada and the organizers of the ChemiSTEAM Art Exhibit Louise Dawe, Vance Williams, and Brian Wagner for allowing me to share this image and a little bit of the story that goes with it. My favourite kind of art has always been that which is used to tell a broader story beyond the artistic representation, and I am honored to have this opportunity to share my story through this art. I am encouraged to read stories and experience art from the world of chemistry as told through the images submitted by the other ChemiSTEAM participants.