Content in a Nutshell

From saline solutions to street lamps, from baking powders to bleaches, from fertilizers to fireworks, alkali metal compounds find everyday uses in our lives. Elements necessary for life, yet ones that react violently with water: do these two sound incompatible? In their aqueous ionic forms, sodium and potassium ions (Na + and K + ) are essential ingredients for animal and plant life, yet the elemental atomic forms of these alkali metals react vigorously with water and other compounds.

The alkali metals (Li, Na, K, Rb, Cs, Fr) form a vertical family of elements that begin each horizontal row of the Periodic Table. Francium, element 87, is a rare radioactive decay product of the radioactive element, actinium. Even the most stable isotope of franciumdecays sorapidlythatits chemicalpropertiesarenot wellknown.Theother alkali metals are silvery metallic solids, as soft as cold butter. Lithium, sodium, and potassium are less dense than water; hence they float on it (but donÕt try it!). LithiumÕs density (0.53 g/cm 3 ) is just over half that of water. All have low melting points. Cesium melts at 29 °C, a bit above room temperature; Na melts at 98 °C, just below the boiling point of water. The alkali metals are so highly reactive that they never occur free (in their elemental form) in nature, but always in combination with other elements. Since they react rapidly with oxygen in air and violently with water, they must be stored in unreactive oil or kerosene.

All alkali metals react vigorously with halogens to produce alkali halides. Large quantities of alkali metal chlorides are found in the oceans, inland seas, and salt deposits. Fifty million billion (5 x 10 16 ) tons of salt (NaCl) are dissolved in earthÕs oceans. The sodium ion, Na + , is the principal positive ion in fluids surrounding cells in our bodies, where it is needed for water retention and muscle action. This ion (in the form of saline solution) is often given intravenously to hospital patients. Potassium ions, K + , are also essential to life, both plant and animal. Compounds of this ion, such as KCl, K 2 SO 4 , and KNO 3 , are used extensively as fertilizers (see IndustrialInorganicChemistrymodule). Insolublelithiumcarbonate,Li 2 CO 3 ,isused to treat manic depressives, although its mode of action is not well understood.

Each alkali metal atom has one more electron than the chemically stable noble gas atom just preceding it in the Periodic Table. Each atom has a large relative size (radius), coupled with filled inner energy levels of electrons. Each atom can therefore readily lose this one electron, forming stable +1ions with noble gas electron configurations. Thus they have low ionization energies. CesiumÕs ionization energy is so low that visible light can ionize it, permitting its use in photoelectric cells, where light energy is converted directly into electricity.

The chemistry of alkali metals provides a fascinating entry into the field of descriptive chemistry and a perfect introduction to the concept of periodicity of the elements (see Periodicity module). The similarities in physical and chemical properties of alkali metals reinforce the concept of families of elements and thus serve as an excellent introduction to the Periodic Table (Periodicity module.) Due to their strong tendency to form compounds in which they exhibit only the +1 oxidation state, their chemistry is simple and predictable, yet frequently exciting. The topic could thus serve as an introduction to predicting the products of chemical reactions (Simple Chemical Reactions module).

Place in the Curriculum

This module can be used toward the end of the second semester of the one-year course in chemistry. Because it concerns the application of chemistry to a topic of interest to many students, it serves as an example of a career opportunity utilizing science, in general, and chemistry, in particular.

Central Concepts

  1. Forensic science is the application of science to law.
  2. The forensic scientist skillfully applies the principles and techniques of chemistry, biology, geology, and many other fields as well (physics, mathematics, etc.) to the analysis of the many types of evidence.
  3. Evidence includes glass and soil samples, tire marks, blood, hair, drugs, fibers, firearms, bullets and cartridges, documents, indented writings, erasures, burned documents, body fluids, fingerprints, voice prints, and many other things.
  4. The examination of physical evidence is undertaken for identification or comparison.
  5. The process of identification determines a substance's physical or chemical identity with as much certainty as the employed analytical technique permits.
  6. A comparative analysis subjects suspect and control specimens to the same tests and examinations for the purpose of determining whether they have a common origin.
  7. Physical and chemical tests are used by forensic scientists. In chemistry, tests include density determination, elemental composition, chemical reactivity, and the determination of optical properties such as color. Biological tests include fingerprints, hair analysis, and blood identification. Tests involving physics include comparison of sound wave patterns, accident reconstruction, and index of refraction. In geology, soil analysis is studied. Instrumentation is an important aspect of the tests.
  8. Modern analytical instruments available for identification and comparison include gas chromatography, thin layer chromatography, high performance liquid chromatography; infrared, ultraviolet, and mass spectroscopy; atomic absorption spectroscopy, and electrophoresis (see Instrumentation module).
  9. Related Concepts

    1. Metric measurements
    2. Density
    3. Index of refraction
    4. Chromatography
    5. Chemical tests for anions and cations

    Related Skills

    1. Careful observation
    2. Use of a microscope
    3. Use of a balance and graduated laboratory glassware
    4. Chemical separations

    Performance Objectives

    After completing their study of forensic chemistry, students should be able to:

    1. recognize the three primary activities of a forensic chemist: examination, identification, comparison.
    2. see the interdisciplinary applications of forensic science to real life problems.
    3. recognize the importance of modern instrumentation to solving problems.
    4. list a number of careers that involve forensic science (firearms expert, medical examiner, museum curator, archaeologist, etc.).
    5. identify and discuss a variety of separation techniques (see Separations module).
    6. identify and discuss a variety of identification techniques.
    7. use the above techniques to make reasonable comparisons.
    8. provide possible physical and chemical explanations for these techniques used in forensic chemistry.