Photography lesson

Xenon, the “alien gas”: a dreaded chemistry lesson from hell

There’s a nasty conflict at ACSH. Check it out…

I must admit that I am steal the idea from hell’s dreaded chemistry lesson© of Dr. Bloom. We’ll call it the dreaded physiology lesson of hell.©.

Dr. Chuck Dinerstein, Medical Director and Serial Copyright Infringer March 4, 2022

Note that there is no mention of remuneration!

Well, Chuckie, it works both ways. In response, I will appropriate your popular “What I Read” series. Of course, our playlists are a little different (1)

Seriously. You might want to check the following. Possibly my favorite book for years. Lots of (mostly precise) science, a mission to save the sun, and the development of a delightful friendship between an astronaut and a brilliant alien who looks like a dog-sized, five-legged spider. Funny as hell too.

Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir, author of The Martian. Impressive.

What does this have to do with DCLFH© (Big enough for you, Chuckie D.?) A lot. One of the many fascinating things you’ll find in the book is an alien polymer of xenon called Xenonite, something that isn’t so far-fetched. (2). The stuff is used as parts of a spaceship and airtight containers. It is nearly indestructible, much like the actual item xenontoday’s topic…

Both Steve and Irving enjoyed Project Hail Mary. It’s a bit long, but it’s not like they’re going anywhere.

The chemistry of xenon

  • Xenon is one of the six noble gases, so named because they are (mostly) inert, just like the noble metals (gold, platinum, rhodium, others). All are in group VIII on the right side of the periodic table. As such, you really have to beat on it for the helium, neon, argon, krypton, and radon to undergo a chemical reaction.

  • The red X next to oganesson signifies my distaste for synthetic elements. They do not exist. Everywhere. Instead, they’re made by blasting another jerk of an element with an unholy amount of energy inside a particle accelerator, roughly the size of the Grand Canyon. And the new item sticks around long enough to be measured, and that’s it. You won’t find them at Costco. Synthetic elements are stupid.
  • The name is derived from xenoswhich is Greek for foreigner.
  • Xenon is very rare. Although it is impossible to get a reliable figure on the amount of xenon found on Earth (if you go to 10 sites you will get 11 different figures), it is clearly one of the rarest elements of the planet.
  • There is far more xenon on Mars than on Earth. You never know when this treat might come in handy. Is this why Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars?
  • Even though xenon is so rare, it is used in photography and projection equipment for movies.
  • When placed inside a vacuum tube and placed in an electric field, it gives off a beautiful blue light.
  • You can even buy one on eBay!

XENON tubes FLASH STROBE LIGHT Vacuum apparatus

But maybe not now…

  • Xenon is incredibly dense: 5.9 grams/litre at normal temperature and pressure. Radon and radon are the two densest elemental gases. For comparison, here are the densities of some other gases:
  • Air – 1.2g/L
  • Oxygen – 1.3
  • Hydrogen – 0.09
  • Helium – 0.17
  • Carbon dioxide – 1.8

It is possible to do chemistry with xenon. Although inert, xenon reacts with fluorine, the most reactive element:

Xe + F2 ——–> XeF2 (xenon difluoride)

Don’t try this at home. The conditions necessary to promote this reaction are not ordinary. You put xenon and fluorine (see Fluoride: The Element of Hell) in a sealed nickel container and heat the damn thing up to 400°C (752°F). This is not a good place for your head…

Xeron difluoride, not something you want to gargle with, has an important use. This is the reagent used to make an important anti-cancer drug:

(Left) Synthesis of 5-FU using XeF2. (Right) Scary symbols. I think the middle one is the universal symbol for “does not apply to testicles”.

Xenon Tetroxide: Go Boom

Now here is a real beauty. Xenon tetroxide is a pure, unaltered chemical bomb. For you DCLFH© fans, you may have read Why Stuff Explodes (2016). To shorten an already too long story, chemicals, such as nitroglycerin, ammonium nitrate and triacetone triperoxide (3), have a large amount of gas (oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide) embedded in the molecule usually contains a lot of energy. In other words, it doesn’t take much of a push for them to explode. One of the worst, nitrogen triiodide, can be exploded by touching it with a feather.

Xenon tetroxide puts them to shame. It’s a yellow crystalline solid, but you can do all the Google image searches you want, and you won’t find a picture of the object. Indeed, it explodes violently at -36°C (-33°F), releasing xenon and oxygen at an alarming rate. This led to a heated discussion on a spaceflight website, where some people argued that it might be a suitable rocket booster. This was shot pretty quickly:

No, no, no and no. The xenon tetroxide in a rocket does not make a vehicle. This makes for a very expensive homemade bomb.

Lajoswinkler, 2014

Believe it or not, it’s sold online! Kind of.

Finally, I looked for a photo or video or things exploding but couldn’t find anything. So I had to experience it myself. Fortunately, Chuck agreed to help…

The experiment worked…

Chuckie D. is going to have even more reading time on his hands


(1) It would be unfair to omit Cameron English from the reading list, even though he’s had a lot less free time lately.

(2) When subjected to tremendous pressure, xenon can actually form something like a metal.

(3) TATP is the thing that idiot shoe bomber tried to detonate on a plane.