Tag Archives: Chemical Imaging

Thermal imaging as a universal indicator of chemical reactions: An example of acid-base titration

Fig. 1: NaOH-HCl titration
Funded by the National Science Foundation and in collaboration with Prof. Dunwei Wang's lab at the Department of Chemistry, Boston College, we are exploring the feasibility of using thermal imaging as a universal indicator of chemical reactions. The central tenet is that, as all chemical reactions absorb or release thermal energy (endothermic or exothermic), we can infer certain information from the time evolution and spatial distribution of the temperature field.

To prove the concept, we first chose titration, a common laboratory method of quantitative chemical analysis that is used to determine the unknown concentration of an identified analyte, as a beginning example. A reagent, called the titrant, is prepared as a standard solution. A known concentration and volume of titrant reacts with a solution of analyte to determine its concentration.

The experiment we did today was an acid-base titration. An acid–base titration is the determination of the concentration of an acid or base by exactly neutralizing the acid or base with a base or acid of known concentration. Such a titration is typically done with a burette that drops titrant into an Erlenmeyer flask containing the analyte. A pH indicator is used to determine whether the equivalence point has been reached. The pH indicator usually depends on the analyte and the titrant. But a differential thermal analysis based on infrared imaging may provide a universal indicator as the technique depends only on the heat of reaction and thermal energy is universal.

Fig. 2: The dish-array titration revealed by FLIR ONE
Figures 1 and 2 in this article show the results of the NaOH+HCl titration, taken using a FLIR ONE thermal camera attached to my iPhone 6. A solution of 10% NaOH was prepared as the analyte of "unknown" concentration and 1%, 3%, 5%, 7%, 10%, 12%, 15%, 18%, and 20% HCl were used as the titrant. The experiment was conducted with a 3×3 array of Petri dishes. Hence, we call this setup as dish-array titration. Preliminary results of this first experiment appeared to be encouraging, but we have to be cautious as the dissolving of HCl after the acid-base neutralization completes can also release a significant amount of heat. How to separate the thermal signatures of reaction and dissolving requires some further thinking.

Chemical imaging using infrared cameras

Figure 1: Evaporative cooling
Scientists have long relied on powerful imaging techniques to see things invisible to the naked eye and thus advance science. Chemical imaging is a technique for visualizing chemical composition and dynamics in time and space as actual events unfold. In this sense, infrared (IR) imaging is a chemical imaging technique as it allows one to see temporal and spatial changes of temperature distribution and, just like in other chemical imaging techniques, infer what is occurring at the molecular level based on these information.

Figure 2: IR imaging
Most IR cameras are sensitive enough to pick up a temperature difference of 0.1°C or less. This sensitivity makes it possible to detect certain effects from the molecular world. Figure 1 provides an example that suggests this possibility.

This experiment, which concerns evaporation of water, cannot be simpler: Just pour some room-temperature water into a plastic cup, leave it for a few hours, and then aim an IR camera at it. In stark contrast to the thermal background, the whole cup remains 1-2°C cooler than the room temperature (Figure 2). About how much water evaporation is enough to keep the cup this cool? Let’s do a simple calculation. Our measurement showed that in a typical dry and warm office environment in the winter, a cup of water (10 cm diameter) loses approximately six grams of water in 24 hours. That is to say, the evaporation rate is 7×10-5 g/s or 7×10-11 m3/s. Divided by the surface area of the cup mouth, which is 0.00785 m2, we obtain that the thickness of the layer of water that evaporates in a second is 8.9 nm—that is roughly the length of only 30 water molecules lining up shoulder to shoulder! It is amazing to notice that just the evaporation of this tiny amount of water at such a slow rate (a second is a very long time for molecules) suffices to sustain a temperature difference of 1-2°C for the entire cup. 

This simple experiment actually raises more questions than it answers. Based on the latent heat of vaporization of water, which is about 2265 J/g, we estimate that the rate of energy loss through evaporation is only 0.16 J/s. This rate of energy loss should have a negligible effect on the 200 g of water in the cup as the specific heat of water is 4.186 J/(g×°C). So where does this cooling effect come from? How does it persist? Would the temperature of water be even lower if there is less water in the cup? What would the temperature difference be if the room temperature changes? These questions pose great opportunities to engage students to propose their hypotheses and test them with more experiments. It is through the quest to the answers that students learn to think and act like scientists.

IR imaging is an ideal tool for guided inquiry as it eliminates the tedious data collection procedures and focuses students on data analysis. In the practice of inquiry, data analysis is viewed as more important than data collection in helping students develop their thinking skills and conceptual understandings. Although this cooling effect can also be investigated using a thermometer, students’ perception might be quite different. An IR camera immediately shows that the entire cup, not just the water surface, is cooler. Seeing the bulk of the cup in blue color may prompt students to think more deeply and invite new questions, whereas a single temperature reading from a thermometer may not deliver the same experience.