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Sodium and other alkali explosions finally explained

Before a blast, metals bristle as electrons flee

11:06am, January 26, 2015
camera filming experimental setup

CHEMICAL BLOCKBUSTER  Film of a fiery reaction explains the surprising trigger for a classic explosion.

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Lights, camera, kaboom! With snapshots from a high-speed camera, chemists can finally explain why sodium and other alkali metals blow up in water.

Just before the explosion, spikes burst from the metal’s smooth surface, setting off a chain reaction that ignites the metal. The blast’s film debut, appearing online January 26 in Nature Chemistry, offers a long-awaited explanation of a classic chemical reaction demonstrated in classrooms worldwide.

“What we found out is that there's a crucial piece of the puzzle that precedes the explosion,” says computational chemist Pavel Jungwirth of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic in Prague.

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