Turn water into 4 different deadly weapons, using just pencils and a battery

A simple childhood experiment, involving basic stuff that anyone could find around the house, provides you with a simple means to make both a chemical and physical weapon. Find out how to split ordinary water into two different dangerous gases, and cause two different explosions.

Top image: Water and Fire, by Serg64/Shutterstock.com

Would you believe they can get a chemical weapon and an explosive with just some household ingredients? And that this has been used as a way to teach kids about electricity and water for generations? To do the miniature version of this experiment, just grab a glass, a nine volt battery and wire, a couple of pencils, a piece of cardboard, and some salt.


Pour some water in the glass, and add just a little salt to it. Pure water is a bad conductor. It's the various stuff dissolved in it that lets it conduct electricity. The salt will help. Put a 'cap' of cardboard over the glass, with holes cut into it for the pencils. Break or sharpen the pencils so that the lead is exposed on both sides. (In actuality, we all know it's graphite and not lead, but let's move on.)

Place the pencils so that their tips extend into the water in the glass and their other end is up in the air. Attach one wire to each of the protrusions on the 9-volt battery and attach the other end of the wire to the lead of each of the pencils. Almost immediately you'll see bubbles beginning to form on each of the pencils in the water. The water is literally splitting into its components. Each water molecule is two hydrogen atoms grabbing on to one oxygen atom. Together, they form a liquid. When split apart, well, at least the hydrogen forms a gas. The hydrogen atom comes off the water molecule sans electron, making it a single, positive proton. The negative lead of one of the pencils proves irresistible for it, and it clusters around the lead lovingly.

Meanwhile, the remaining oxygen-hydrogen team has lost a proton and is electron-heavy. It starts streaking towards the negative pencil lead. This combination, however, doesn't turn to gas. And yet, gas bubbles form around the positive lead. What are they? It turns out that the dissolved salt also has a reaction to the electricity. The oxygen and hydrogen team stay liquid, the sodium stays in the liquid, and the chlorine turns to gas and clumps around the other pencil lead.


This is why the experiment technically counts as weapons manufacturing. Hydrogen gas was most famously used in the Hindenburg. Under controlled conditions (like the classroom) the experiment is concluded with the hydrogen gas being collected and ignited, making an explosion. Chlorine, meanwhile, was what was used during World War I to kill soldiers at Ypres and during other battles. It will rip apart biological molecules, including the delicate ones in the lungs, and slowly suffocate a person. Some instructions for this experiment direct people to have a good look at the color of the gas, and of the solution. If they see it turn yellow-green, or if they smell a combination of pepper and pineapple, which is what the soldiers reported smelling in World War I, it's time to pull off the wires and get out of the room.

But it's not just the two products separately that can destroy you. Many experimental set-ups, especially the bigger ones, have separated tubes that enclose the electric leads from water level upwards. This isn't just to get a pure sample of the gas. It's to keep the two gases separate from each other. Chlorine gas and hydrogen gas can explode when put together. The two elements combine and release massive amounts of energy. This isn't one of those explosions that take a lot of energy to get going. You don't need to light a match or collapse them together with a lot of force. A camera flash can set them off. What's left over when they combine? Hydrogen chloride. This is a colorless gas that grabs on atmospheric moisture and forms wisps of hydrochloric acid. So it's an explosion that leaves sudden plumes of hydrochloric acid around the room.


So in this simple experiment, you can find ways to blow yourself up twice over, dose yourself with poison gas, and bathe yourself with atmospheric acid. It's no wonder it's such a classroom tradition.

Second Image: Copyright Nevit Dilmen

Via EQ, Reekoscience, and Wisconsin University.


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