“Silver Crystal Fern” received an honourable mention at ChemiSTEAM 2021.

We may not have fancy equipment or specialized techniques in secondary school science labs but we do try to expose students to the beauty of science and in particular chemistry. Science technicians like myself play a fundamental role in this area. We are willing to try new things and share our enthusiasm with students and teachers. So, in the midst of a world-wide pandemic technicians stepped up to the challenge and offered a more practical way to study and appreciate science.

Most practical work in the lab was out of bounds, inaccessible or otherwise completely closed for the majority of people. So, armed with smartphones, USB microscopes and visualizers technicians all over the world including myself started filming chemistry practicals, demos and science experiments for the benefit of teachers and students. An article reflecting on our experiences was published in Chemistry World magazine in the September 2021 issue.

Microscale chemistry is slowly but surely gaining traction in UK schools. After decades of repeating the same experiments over and over again with the same equipment following the same recipe; microscale has opened a door of wonder, curiosity and understanding. Sparking a new interest in learning. We knew microscale was the way forward so we included quite a range in our videos (precipitation reactions ‘’in a puddle’’, gas formation and halogen displacement reactions contained in a petri dish, acid-base neutralisation reactions, etc.). Ready to be performed by students once they returned to the school lab and was safe to carry out their investigations.

The benefits far outweigh the preparation and time taken to build new apparatus, buy new plastic dropping bottles and laminate a few instructions sheets. For starters, the amount of chemicals used is vastly reduced as well as potential hazards complying with the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry. Students can work individually and focus on the reaction taking place with spectacular detail and finish in a surprisingly short period of time leaving time for questions and discussions at the end. The cleaning up is straightforward. Suddenly, metal displacement reactions as the one shown in the photo come alive with exquisite definition and artistic flamboyance when viewed under the microscope at its lowest magnification (40x). A single piece of copper wire about 1 cm in length was placed in a cavity glass slide and three drops of 0.1 M silver nitrate solution were added. A few seconds later fragile metal ferns or dendrites started growing on the copper metal surface. Copper is more reactive than silver so it displaces the less reactive silver from the solution forming a copper nitrate solution. The beauty of those fern looking metal crystals is mesmerising. You can tell by the silence and awe experienced by children when they observe this reaction for the first time. They see them growing in real time and at a much faster rate than in the more familiar ‘’silver tree’’ demonstration usually reserved for the period approaching the Christmas holidays. Afterwards, questions kept pouring in, can we grow other metal ferns? Is it possible to form metal crystals out of solutions using other methods e.g. electricity?

Fractal patterns such as these are very common in nature. So immediately, comparisons are drawn to lightning strikes, electrical discharges on powder coated insulators, snow flake crystals, etc. The science has become art and the art has become science. Both are interchangeable and both are inspiring and beautiful.

Thank you to the organizers of ChemiSTEAM, Louise Dawe, Vance Williams for his stunning liquid crystal photographs, and in particular Brian Wagner for being a continual source of inspiration and for sharing my undying love of all glowy fluorescent things. I am honoured to have been selected to be a contributor to this series of posts.