Take the 2-minute tour ×
Chemistry Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for scientists, academics, teachers and students. It's 100% free, no registration required.

There are lots of videos on YouTube showing sodium, potassium, etc. exploding when dropped into water (this, for example).

I understand that when an alkali metal is exposed to water, a violent exothermic reaction occurs where a hydroxide and hydrogen gas are produced, but why and how does the sample of metal end up detonating and fragmenting? Physically speaking, how can a block of metal seemingly blast apart from the inside when the reaction occurs on the surface of the sample?

The Wikipedia article on alkali metals explains this, but I still don't seem to understand how this would result in an explosion. Diagrams would be very helpful.

The key of the question is how does the release of hydrogen gas and energy result in an explosion? Is there thermal runaway, and is the metal physically destabilized in some way during the reaction?

share|improve this question
add comment

3 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I assume this is due to mesoscopic defects -- if you think about a piece of metal on a molecular scale, it's not going to be presenting a totally flat sheet of atoms at its surface. Hydrogen gas forming within cracks in the metal can force those cracks to open wider, and this then exposes more surface to react, and produces more cracks.

This process will result in the force of the generated hydrogen ripping the bulk metal apart if it happens quickly enough. If the heat generated from the reactions then also starts boiling water in those same cracks and defects, that'll only add to the effect.

share|improve this answer
    
So it seems that as the reaction proceeds, the hydrogen pushes into the cracks and the increased surface area for the reaction produces even more hydrogen and heat, causing the cracks to expand rapidly in a feedback loop and leading to an explosion. This means there is thermal runaway, since more heat leads to higher rate of reaction, and this combines with the increased hydrogen production and surface area for reaction to tear apart the metal, possibly at a rate in excess of the speed of sound. Am I right to say this? –  DragonLord Nov 25 '12 at 8:22
    
@DragonLord: As I understand it, yes. –  Aesin Nov 25 '12 at 12:07
1  
Additionally, the amount of heat produced is enough to melt sodium and potassium, and the interior gets super heated. –  Ben Norris Nov 25 '12 at 17:03
    
@BenNorris: Now that's thermal runaway. –  DragonLord Nov 26 '12 at 3:15
add comment

I don't think any clever effects need to be invoked to explain this phenomenon. The simple fact that the heat of the reaction is always enough to melt the blobs of metal involved is enough. Once you have a mobile molten drop of metal (which is often on fire), very little energy is required to cause the drop to split up so the violence of the continuing reaction is often quite sufficient to cause the drop to split and disperse.

You can easily verify that drops of liquids don't need much energy to cause them to disperse and, if you were still allowed to play with mercury, you could also prove this applies to liquid metals. Drops of mercury will easily split into smaller drops when small amounts of energy are added (e.g. letting a drop fall a short distance onto a surface). These smaller drops are a lot harder to contain than their parent (which is one reason why mercury contamination is so prevalent and hard to remove in old labs).

So in short, exothermal reaction + liquid metal = readily dispersed drops of burning metal.

share|improve this answer
add comment

The reaction between alkali metals and water produces hydrogen, which will rise up and mix with the oxygen in the air above. If the reaction generates enough heat, it can ignite this mixture - hydrogen and oxygen will detonate when mixed in the correct ratio. This explosion will either directly spray out the metal (which by then will probably be molten) or force it down into the water where it will produce even more hydrogen gas and steam, propelling it back up and outwards.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.