Methane is an colourless, odourless gas that is burnt to generate electricity. Energy companies condense and convert methane into a liquid to transport and store it more efficiently. In liquid form, methane occupies a tiny fraction of the space needed for the same amount as a gas. To liquefy methane, technicians lower its temperature to -126 degrees C (-161 degrees C.) with sophisticated cryogenic technology and equipment. However, the same process can be followed using simple materials in the following experiment designed for chemistry students by North Louisiana High science teacher William Deese, founder of the Dead Chemists Society, an educational organisation for students interested in science.
- Skill level:
Things you need
- A small tank of methane
- Beach ball or punch ball balloon
- Duct tape
- 150mm test tube plugged with a stopper with one hole
- Plastic pipette tip
- Liquid nitrogen
- Dewer flask
- Test tube holder
- Safety goggles
- Fire-resistant gloves
- Fire extinguisher
Insert one end of the pipette tube into the test tube stopper. Squeeze the air from either a beach ball or a punch ball and reinflate it with methane. Insert the other end of the pipette tip into the plug or inflater nozzle. Wrap the connection with duct tape to keep any gas from leaking.
Grasp the test tube with the holder and place it in a Dewer flask of liquid nitrogen. The temperature of the methane that has already flowed into the tube through the pipette will drop dramatically and the gas will start to condense. As more room becomes available in the test tube, more methane will flow from the beach ball until it deflates.
Wait several minutes and lift the test tube out of the liquid nitrogen. A small amount of liquid methane will be at the bottom of the tube.
Remove the test tube stopper. As soon as the methane is removed from the frigid liquid nitrogen and introduced to room temperature air, it will start to convert back to a gas. Strike a match an hold it at the top of the test tube. The reformed methane gas will create a blue flame.
Tips and warnings
- Make sure no air mixes with the methane in the beach ball. Oxygen combined with methane could explode under these conditions. Avoid any contact with the liquid nitrogen and wear safety goggles. As it warms, liquid methane could potentially begin to boil, overflow and start a fire. Have a fire extinguisher ready and wear flame-resistant gloves just in case a fire beaks out.
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