Series exploring the wonder in ordinary things. Jane Moore looks at some of the most trusted domestic life-savers, including drain cleaner and mobile phone batteries.
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This series gets inside stuff we just can't live without - the cleaners, the cosmetics,
the convenience items that we use every single day.
How do these things actually work?
I'm Jane Moore and I'm on the hunt
for the hidden science in my daily essentials.
Oh, my God!
I'm determined to get to the bottom of what's doing the clever work
inside the stuff we buy and rely on
and find the secret wonder stuffs that we take for granted.
It will lead me to the brink of utter humiliation...
..test my senses to the extreme...
I'm going to retch.
..and push my nerves to breaking point.
If I survive all that, I'm expecting to go down the supermarket aisle
with a new-found confidence in what I'm looking for,
having discovered what really does the job.
So far, I've learned about some of the astonishing stuff
that works its magic in keeping our homes spic and span,
our clothes washed and scrubbed, and our bodies cleaned and preened.
This time, I want to pull apart three of our most-trusted domestic life-savers,
which I for one certainly wouldn't want to live without.
Wow, look at that.
I'm talking about drain unblocker, antifreeze and batteries.
To help me in my quest, I'll be calling on the services of the professionals,
including our resident Wonderstuff guru, Dr Mark Miodownik,
head of the Materials Research Group at King's College, London.
'Later, Mark will try to blind me with science once again...'
'..by attempting to recreate the world's oldest battery
'from a jumble of bits from his toolbox.'
This isn't going to explode, is it?
But first, to tackling an item on our supermarket shopping list
that we all hope we don't have to buy very often,
but when we do, it's an absolute life safer.
My Wonderstuff hunt starts
with one of the most infuriating household problems of all,
a blocked sink, loo or drain.
When a bit of plunger action has no effect,
I reach for one of the many chemical unblockers on the market.
But what does your typical drain declogger actually do?
Is there a particular wonder stuff that they have in common?
To get to the bottom of what causes this nasty problem,
I'm heading out on the rounds with professional drain unblocker, Terry Kaufman.
So what's the most common problem that you get called out for, then?
The most common problem, I would say, is Wet Wipes.
A lot of people are using them.
On telly they say that they dissolve and break down, but they don't.
What's one of the funniest things that you've found down somebody's sink,
when they've said, "Oh, I don't know what's down there"?
With the sink, it normally is grease and hair,
but drainage-wise you can find pretty much all sorts.
One guy came home drunk one night
and he flushed his underpants down the toilet.
We had to fish them out.
Oh, we've all done that, Terry! We've all done that. Oh, blimey.
'Without working drains, any building quickly grinds to a halt.'
Right now, it's Orpington College that has a major blockage.
'I've changed some nappies in my time,
'but nothing's prepared me for this.'
This is normally the manhole that they have trouble with.
If you're eating, look away now.
Right, as you can see, that's...
Ugh, that's... How do you do this job?
You get used to it.
'Fortunately my own blocked drain's never quite this bad.'
So this is like a grand version of what you get in a domestic house?
It is. It's the same thing.
'This is just the overflow.
'The - ahem - log jam must be somewhere downstream.'
-If you come round here.
Look at the pipe. You can see that is the cause of the problem.
-Oh, yeah! A good plug of goodness knows what.
'It's just like what happens when grease, hair and other yucky stuff
'builds up in our pipes at home.'
-Right, OK, Terry, off you go.
It takes a lot of hard work with specialist equipment to shift it.
We have lift-off!
Thankfully, for your typical smaller-scale household blockage,
there's somewhere to turn before calling in a big gun like Terry.
Yes, I'm talking about the staggering choice of chemical drain cleaners.
And judging by the labels, there must be something in here
that's strong enough to do the dirty work.
So what exactly is it?
I've asked the University of Warwick's chemistry department
to demonstrate what's in drain unblocker that makes it effective.
So they've built the ultimate household blockage,
a stomach-churning cocktail of melted lard, bits of old veg,
and hair kindly donated by chemist Julie Ann Lough.
You can't go in and have a good scrub at it.
This is a case where we have to get chemicals to do all the hard work for us.
Julie Ann is going to make some drain cleaner from scratch.
Whatever you do, don't try this at home.
I'm going to get you to put on a pair of gloves.
What would it do if it went on my hands?
It would eat through your skin, because your skin is fat.
OK, I'll put gloves on!
It eats through the fat in this drain, so how easily will it eat through the fat on your skin?
We're going to make some caustic soda.
-I want you to hold onto this and I'm going to pour in some water.
'Julie Ann's starting with sodium hydroxide
'which apparently is the linchpin of many off-the-shelf drain cleaners.'
'When it mixes with water, the result is hot stuff.'
That is seriously hot. What's happening here?
Isn't it? We'll have a look at how hot it is.
It's flying up the thermometer here, coming up on 60.
Julie Ann tells me that the particles in the mixture
are violently attracted to one another
and this chemistry is releasing a lot of heat that makes the thermometer shoot up.
It feels like boiling water.
It gets up to that stage. This heat will have an important role in how it cleans your grease.
'To be on the safe side,
'our self-styled blocked drain goes into a fume cupboard.'
Starting to eat through it now.
-Wow, look at that.
You can visibly see it going down.
On our thermal camera you can really see the sodium hydroxide at work.
Already the mixture's as hot as a cup of tea
and it's starting to melt the fat, but that's not all.
You've got two really exciting things going on.
The heat of it is helping with the cleaning,
Also the sodium hydroxide is turning your fat into soap.
Ah, yes. I remember that from my travels.
Alkali plus fat equals soap
and this will help clean your pipe. Amazing.
Also, the sodium hydroxide is breaking down hairs.
Hairs are long chairs of proteins which are made up of amino acids.
The connection between each amino acid is very sensitive
to big, strong alkalis, so that helps break down your hair as well.
'But it's still not quite enough to shift our mega blockage.'
You feel that you want to get in there and give it a good old oomph,
which of course we couldn't do in a real pipe.
What we need is a bit of agitation.
Drain cleaner has another trick up its sleeve.
It can also contain aluminium which reacts with the sodium hydroxide
to give off lots of bubbles.
Gosh, look at that.
This is releasing a bit of hydrogen gas here.
-Yep. You see?
-So this is reacting with your sodium hydroxide.
Not only is it doing the bubbling, that's what you're getting.
All these bubbles of hydrogen gas are released.
-That's hydrogen gas there.
All this gas is helping to agitate things and move stuff around.
And finally it's time to say goodbye to our revolting blockage.
Here we go, we have lift-off.
We have a beautifully clean pipe. There we are.
In the past, I've just got the old drain unblocker out
and poured it down. I haven't given a second thought to how it works.
I just know that it does what it does.
But having done this, I'll never look at it in the same way again.
It's absolutely incredible.
To me this sodium hydroxide, or caustic soda, is a real wonder stuff.
We've relied on its cleaning properties for thousands of years.
It's indispensable in drain cleaner, but we also need it to make essentials like soap,
paper, food, soft drinks and even CDs.
And it's caustic enough to strip paint and decompose dead bodies.
When it comes to fixing or thwarting some of life's most infuriating binds,
then we just had to throw the spotlight on this stuff - antifreeze.
Time and again it rescues our cars from the worst excesses of the British winter,
but how does it do it?
# You're as cold as ice... #
A good starting point for any chemist
to solve a natural problem like freezing is to look at how nature tackles it.
There are plenty of animals that manage to keep moving in sub-zero temperatures.
Professor Lloyd Peck at the British Antarctic Survey
has a veritable cold water menagerie,
which includes these little bundles of delight.
They're one of the big groups of crustaceans
-and that's isopods.
-Woodlice are isopods.
God, I can't bear it!
'The sea louse can survive to just under freezing point,
'but if I'm to find the science that keeps things moving
'at much lower temperatures, this isn't it.
'Down the corridor, Dr Roger Worland reckons he's got something
'that can survive at record-breaking low temperatures.'
-These are tiny. What are they?
They're a type of primitive insect that live in the Antarctic.
These little insects have to live there for summer and winter.
'To put this to the test, some Antarctic springtails
'will be put into a super deep freeze
'kept at a constant minus 25 degrees.
'I get cold just opening my fridge door,
so it's back in the suit for me.'
Look at that.
Kitted up to walk round the supermarket freezer department.
'The springtails, however, have their body chemistry to help them.'
Blimey, the cold hits you straightaway.
'At this temperature, most creatures would die in minutes.'
So we have all this gear on obviously to help us retain heat,
but if we weren't wearing this, how long would we survive?
Without the clothing, at minus 25 you're not going to last long at all.
-A few minutes.
-A few minutes? Gosh.
'The tiny insects soon stop moving.
'Despite their nickname, "snow fleas",
'I have my doubts about this.'
I'm really beginning to see the effects of being in here now.
It's getting quite chilly.
What's my beard like? Is it all right?
Well, these little chaps have definitely stopped moving now.
But back outside, Roger slowly warms up the springtails
and we check for signs of life.
This one's starting to move now.
-He's twitching his antenna.
-His legs are starting to move very slowly.
So on this one here, is that ice I'm seeing, those droplets on it?
I think so. It's beginning to melt.
They stay in this dormant stage until conditions improve
and they can become active and feed again.
Their natural antifreeze kept them alive even at minus 25.
What's happening in all that, chemically?
They've been converting their food reserves, glycogen,
into cryoprotective compounds such as glycerol and various sugars and sugar alcohols,
which all act as cryoprotectants or antifreezes.
They prevent the water from actually being able to crystallise and form ice.
It's amazing that something that small can produce all of that.
It is, yeah.
But is this glycerol in springtails the same stuff we use to stop things freezing up?
Just up the road at Cambridge University I'm hoping Dr Peter Wothers can enlighten me.
He's promised to get his fancy gizmos out.
-Wow! Look at that.
The ice man cometh.
Let's have a look, shall we? Let's pour a bit out.
This is the de-icer.
'It turns out our de-icers and antifreezes commonly contain
'something called glycols, which are a chemical relative
'of the natural glycerol made by the springtails.'
The key ingredient is called ethylene glycol.
This is what we have in here, a bit of ethylene glycol.
It's slightly thicker than water, slightly gloopy.
But before we can see glycols in action,
Peter wants to show me why putting antifreeze in your car radiator is so essential.
So using this cast-iron flask, this is pretty solid.
That's incredible. Look at the thickness of that.
I have one here that we cut in two. You can see it's pretty thick.
-But ice isn't going to damage that, surely?
The flask is filled with pure water, sealed, then dropped into a chemical bath
at a staggeringly cold minus 80 degrees Centigrade.
-Oh, my God!
-This is just cooling down now.
That's like in Young Frankenstein.
-Stand back a bit.
-It really does look like a bomb, doesn't it?
'It doesn't take long
'before the water in the flask starts to freeze.'
Oh, my God!
Well, that worked!
Let's see what's left.
Oh, my God! I think I've just had a heart attack.
Cor, that was a spectacular explosion.
-Look at that.
-That was quite a frisky one.
It is absolutely astonishing that ice has got the power...
I'm absolutely blown away by that, literally. Oh, I'm shaking.
-So that could be a car engine.
-The pipes there can easily burst.
Wow! Science is really exciting!
OK, so we definitely need something to combat the wanton destruction that ice can cause,
but can the man-made glycols beat springtails' natural antifreeze?
Just how cold can ethylene glycol get?
Let's give it a go. I'm going to ask you if you can record the temperature, please.
-OK? So you've got the reading there.
I'm going to cool this in the bath. The temperature should be dropping.
It's dropping like a stone.
Two, one, zero. We're below zero now.
It's getting gloopier. It's certainly more viscous.
-How are we doing for temperature?
Ooh, we're getting crystals. So about minus 13-ish.
We're definitely getting the liquid here. It's freezing, OK?
If we kept it this temperature, this would all freeze.
So, pure glycols are good down to minus 13.
Not as impressive as springtail antifreeze, mind you, with their minus 25.
But Peter promises me that glycols have an amazing trick up their sleeve.
When mixed with water, the glycol molecules
work to make the whole mixture resist freezing more effectively.
-Let's cool it down.
So we're already at temperatures lower than the pure ethylene glycol.
Minus 20 now and it's still liquid. No sign of any crystals in here.
Minus 30, still no sign of any crystals.
That's past the springtails, but how much lower will it go?
It's certainly getting thicker, but no crystals yet.
-We're at 35 now!
So this is really quite bizarre. The pure water freezes at zero,
the pure ethylene glycol at minus 12,
and the mixture at nearly minus 40.
So it's still liquid there at minus 40.
Minus 43. Ah, there we are.
It's starting to now, just about. Yep, clever stuff.
So a mixture of glycols and water gives us an antifreeze
that can beat anything nature can come up with.
What's brilliant is that glycols are doubly helpful in your car,
because they also increase the boiling point of water,
so they'll stop your radiator overheating in summer too.
These wonder stuffs turn up all over the place,
from shoe polish to dyes and preservatives.
So far, I've tackled two of the major irritations that threaten to wreak domestic havoc on us,
but what about something that has to be the ultimate life-safer,
enabling me to live my busy life to the max?
It's hard to think of something that we haven't invented a battery-powered gadget for.
I know that batteries come in a dazzling array of shapes and sizes,
but I've never stopped to think about how they actually work.
So, armed with a - ahem - battery of questions,
I'm off to meet my material scientist Mark Miodownik,
who always has the energy for some answers.
Let's get some drinks.
Well, a battery is essentially a container of electricity.
The difference between a battery and the electricity you get from home
is that difference between a bottle of water and turning on the tap at home.
They're essentially the same thing.
The clever thing is how do you bottle electricity up into this tiny container?
So what is electricity?
Electricity is a flow of electrons.
Electrons are going from one terminal, round this piece of wire,
up here, through this tiny filament. This filament is resisting the flow,
just the way that the flow of a river, when you narrow its course, it goes faster.
It's so resistant that it gets red hot and glows,
and that's a bulb. That's how they work.
The electrons come from a chemical reaction inside the battery.
Every time you turn on a gadget and you're using a battery,
you're turning on a chemical reaction.
If you can get it to happen in a certain way, you're in business.
So if a battery is a carefully controlled chemical reaction,
what kind of ingredients are in there that are reacting with each other?
You can make a battery out of any chemical reaction and with a vast range of materials.
Let me show you. I've got some bits and bobs here
that I can make into a chemical reaction.
Well, I didn't... You know. Hold those for a minute.
-No, no! HE GIGGLES NERVOUSLY
'Gee, thank, Mark(!)
'To prove you can make a battery from the simplest of materials,
'Mark's about to reconstruct something called the Baghdad battery.
'All you need is a jar, some acid - vinegar will do - and a piece of copper.'
I don't want it to touch the other bit of the battery.
Is this going to explode? Shall I stand back?
It usually doesn't but sometimes...
The last thing you need is some iron or steel,
like Mark's rather butch drill bit.
Jars like this one have been dug up in Iraq that are 2,000 years old,
suggesting our ancestors could have been dabbling with
the magic of electricity long before they knew what it was.
So, if I connect one side of the battery, which is the copper,
to the other side of the battery which is the steel...
-Yes! 0.3 of a volt.
So a normal battery is what, 1.5 volts?
-An AA battery is 1.5 volts, yes.
-So it is a bit piddley?
# Danger, danger... #.
So hardly surprising that a pickle jar, some copper
and a drill bit generate a comparatively tame chemical reaction,
but all the same, we just made electricity!
So what I thought was incredibly complex, what's going on in here,
when I see it like that, it's very simple.
I'm beginning to understand that creating electricity
is all about the combination of different metals.
And from the wide range of batteries I see in the shops,
some metals seem more useful in batteries than others.
For a disposable battery, a popular choice is a zinc core, surrounded by manganese.
It's a reaction that can create a lot of power relatively cheaply, but there is a limitation.
'There's only a finite amount of power in these batteries before they run out.'
The problem with these types of batteries is that they sort of,
in a sense, gunge themselves up in the end.
That battery will last as long as there's zinc that hasn't reacted.
OK, so although disposable batteries are handy for things like
remote controls, torches and alarm clocks, they definitely
wouldn't be convenient for the one electronic gadget
that goes with me everywhere - my mobile phone.
What we want in those kind of gadgets is them to be rechargeable.
We want the chemical reaction to go one way to give us electricity
and then be reversed if you charge it on the mains.
You want the reaction to un-react.
Getting that to happen is the next revolution in batteries,
which happened not so long ago, actually.
So the state-of-the-art technology,
where the excitement is in batteries, is a metal called lithium.
Well, if Mark's excited about lithium, it must be worth a look.
So it's back to the chemistry department of Cambridge University.
At the very least, I'd better get an honorary degree out of this.
I'm going to meet Professor Claire Grey,
whose lab is at the cutting edge of lithium battery research.
So what makes lithium best for my mobile phone battery?
Basically, it's because the lithium irons are small and very light.
That means that they can move very fast and they are very reactive.
And that's a must-have, because technology,
we want it to get smaller and smaller.
Absolutely. Particularly in smart phones and applications like that.
So the amount of power that these little devices consume
demands something very reactive in their batteries.
Something like lithium, in fact.
To prove how desperate lithium is to react with other things,
anything at all, Professor Grey is about to drop some
into common or garden tap water.
-You might want to step back.
-Oh, yes! Wow!
You can see it moving around and it's giving off hydrogen
as it's reacting with the water.
Good grief. That's incredible.
It shows you how powerful this is.
Yes. It's actually fragmenting.
The one thing I notice is that it's metal and it's floating.
Yep. That's because it's such a light element.
So you can see, here is lithium,
you start off with the lightest element, hydrogen, helium.
And lithium is the third one, it's even lighter than oxygen.
A metal that's lighter than oxygen and even reacts with water,
how on earth do we turn something like that into a battery?
-So this is the inside of one of the...?
You can see, it's made up of this roll and the roll contains
different layers of components.
These three paper-thin layers work in much the same way
as the metals and liquids in ordinary disposable batteries,
the key difference here is that the metal itself
moves between the layers as it reacts.
And the really neat trick is that recharging the battery
pushes the lithium back where it started.
So when I charge, the lithiums will come out of this material,
go through the separator material and be trapped inside the carbon.
And when I discharge, they'll go back in the opposite direction.
So, as the lithium particles flow backwards and forwards
between the layers in the battery, the electrons channel
backwards and forwards too, but through our laptops and phones.
Professor Grey has a microscopic video to prove it.
So, these colours that I'm seeing here, is that the lithium
moving across the battery?
Yes, you're watching the lithiums being inserted into the carbons.
And because lithium is so small, it doesn't distort the materials.
# You can't kill the metal... #
So, lithium's minute size means it's not only light,
but it can flow quickly through a battery without damaging anything.
Meaning lithium batteries can be recharged again and again,
regardless of how full or empty they are.
OK, so I've really got the benefits of lithium now.
It's small, it's light. It's reactive, which gives it a great
power punch and also, you can constantly recharge it.
Yes, so lithium batteries are really a technology enabler,
without them, you wouldn't have your mobile phones, your laptops.
It's really revolutionised the whole area of portable electronics.
It really is the wonder material.
So, it is official.
Even a professor is calling lithium a wonderstuff.
As well as revolutionising our portable electronics,
lithium is finding all sorts of other futuristic applications
and is also the gold standard in mood stabilising medication.
It seems lithium is a tiny molecule that punches well above its weight.
When I set out to discover the wonder stuff behind the things
we use on a daily basis, I truly had no idea what I might find.
The bottles and packets were familiar to me, but I really
knew very little about what was going on inside, working its magic.
I love the simplicity behind some of these discoveries,
that the simplest solutions can often be the most powerful,
that just adding something as basic as water to sodium hydroxide
can create enough force to clear the worst of domestic crises.
And that the clue to solving the problem of a frozen car engine...
Oh, my God!
..lies in a tiny primitive insect that lives in the Antarctic.
Next time, I up the ante on my hunt for life-saving wonderstuff
as I uncover what protects us from the killer germs around our homes...
-That's pretty badly contaminated.
-That's off the scale.
..and in our toilets.
And Mark's technique goes from bad to worse as he attempts
to explain smells, using his trainer.
I don't have to smell it!
Oh, look at that, it's all damp and scuzzy!
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
In this episode, Jane Moore pulls apart three of the most trusted domestic life-savers. She reveals how the clue to fixing a frozen car engine lies in a tiny insect from the Antarctic and which ingredient in drain cleaner does the dirty work. She also unravels the amazing science at work inside mobile phone batteries.