Learn Some Chemistry

Having a good understanding of Chemistry is helpful in understanding how to make aerogels and especially helpful if you want to innovate new aerogel materials and applications! Here are some excellent resources for learning useful and interesting Chemistry. Also, look for some of the experiments you can do at home (like Making Hydrogen from Water and 9V Battery below)–this is the way a lot of chemists (including the founders of Aerogel.org) got started!

MIT OpenCourseWare

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) runs a remarkable project called OpenCourseWare (OCW) which provides complete MIT coursework online to the public for free. Like Aerogel.org, MIT OpenCourseWare content is available under a Creative Commons license. If you haven’t had the opportunity to take high school or college-level Chemistry at some point in your life, here is a great way to teach yourself. These classes are very doable! Take it step-by-step–do a little every day and follow the course outline and you’ll find you can learn a lot in just a few weeks! The following are subject summaries for coursework on MIT OCW which will help you make the most of Aerogel.org. The summaries below are taken directly from OCW.

5.111 Principles of Chemical Science

5.111 is an introductory chemistry course, emphasizing basic principles of atomic and molecular electronic structure, thermodynamics, acid-base and redox equilibria, chemical kinetics, and catalysis. This course also introduces the chemistry of biological, inorganic, and organic molecules. Complete set of video and audio (MP3) lectures available.


5.12 Organic Chemistry I

This subject deals primarily with the basic principles to understand the structure and reactivity of organic molecules. Emphasis is on substitution and elimination reactions and chemistry of the carbonyl group. The course also provides an introduction to the chemistry of aromatic compounds.


5.60 Thermodynamics and Kinetics

This subject deals primarily with equilibrium properties of macroscopic systems, basic thermodynamics, chemical equilibrium of reactions in gas and solution phase, and rates of chemical reactions.


All Chemistry subjects on MIT OpenCourseWare


More subjects on MIT OpenCourseWare


Two-Semester Course in General, Organic, and Biochemistry

University of Akron Prof. James Hardy’s two-semester, self-guided, all-in-one course to get you up to speed on the chemistry you need! Covers topics which are directly useful for Aerogel.org in an easy-to-understand way and will make aerogel chemistry a lot easier to understand. Stuff that’s particularly helpful for Aerogel.org is marked with an (*). In semester one, you’ll learn:

In semester two you’ll learn:

Chemtutor Basic Chemistry – A Great Place to Start!

Chemtutor is an excellent resource for understanding and breaking into the basic topics of Chemistry and has a lot of good advice about how to learn Chemistry as well! This is the basic stuff you would learn in a high school Chemistry class and is a great place to start! Here are the topics you’ll learn:

Good Chemistry Textbooks

Textbooks are expensive but if you can find them used on Amazon or eBay, or even better yet borrow them from a library, you will find them to be very useful in learning Chemistry and full of interesting stuff. If your local library doesn’t have the books listed below, ask if they can help you get them through interlibrary loan.

General Chemistry

Zumdahl, Steven S. Chemistry. Houghton-Mifflin College Division. 2006. (High school level)
Atkins, Peter; Jones, Loretta. Chemical Principles: The Quest for Insight, 4th ed. W H Freeman & Company. 2006. (High school/college level)

Organic Chemistry

Jones Jr., Maitland. Organic Chemistry, 3rd ed. W W Norton & Company. 2005.

Physical Chemistry

Atkins, Jones; DePaula, Julio. Physical Chemistry, 8th ed. Oxford University Press. 2006.


A comprehensive website about the Periodic Table of the Elements including the history and use of all of the elements.


Science is Fun

Science is Fun is a web site run by the lab of Prof. Bassam Z. Shakahsiri at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Fun experiments you can do at home, information about the periodic table of the elements, chemical of the week, exciting chemistry demos, and more!


Online Chemistry Demos at the University of Illinois

This site has pictures, videos, and explanations of a bunch of classic Chemistry experiments which will definitely engage your curiosity! See how to break water into hydrogen and oxygen gas, watch a classic “science fair volcano” erupt, and more!


Organometallic Chemistry HyperTextBook

Organometallic chemistry involves the interactions and types of bonding which occurs between inorganic elements (for example, the transition metals) and organic molecules. Really cool stuff and a great thing to take on once you’ve covered general and organic chemistry. Very helpful in understanding the sol-gel chemistry involved in the production of metal oxide aerogels. Check out the links below:

Directory of Lots and Lots of Links to Cool Chemistry Sites

Prof. Steven Murow at Modesto Junior College has a really comprehensive directory of links to all sorts of stuff about Chemistry that keep you engaged for days. Below are links to the section headings of his directory:

Wikipedia “List of” Pages

Obviously Wikipedia’s got lots of great stuff about Chemistry, but Wikipedia’s “List of” pages are superuseful at finding stuff you totally weren’t expecting to find or read about. Check out these two pages for links to different inorganic and organic compounds:

Make Hydrogen from Water and a 9V Battery

This is a fun experiment that anyone can do at home. Electrolysis is a process by which a substance, such as water, can be broken down into its elements by passing an electric current through it. In this experiment you will electrolyze water, H2O, to break it into its components, hydrogen and oxygen.

What you will need:

  • A clear drinking glass
  • A piece of cardboard or something similarly rigid
  • A pair of scissors
  • Two wooden pencils (even better: two pencils without erasers on the ends)
  • (Optional) A small metal file or hack saw
  • Some thin, uninsulated (bare) wire (available at most hardware stores)
  • A 9V battery (the rectangular kind)
  • (Optional) A 9V battery snap-on connector from Radio Shack
  • Epsom salt (MgSO4, that is, magnesium sulfate, available at most pharmacies)

What to do:

  1. Break/saw off the ends off of the two pencils. Sharpen both sides. If you have a small metal file or saw, on one tip of both pencils, carefully file or saw two grooves in the graphite (the black part). We’re going to use these grooves to make it easier to wrap wire around this tip.
  2. Cut your piece of cardboard into a rectangle that can sit comfortably on top of your drinking glass. This will be used to hold your pencils vertically in the glass without falling over.
  3. Poke two holes in your cardboard so your pencils can stick through into the glass. Make sure that the two graphite ends of the pencils can’t touch when they’re inside the glass.
  4. Cut two wires and attach one to each terminal of the 9V battery. Make sure your wires are long enough that they can reach from the top of the glass down to where the 9V battery will sit. Attaching wires to a battery is kind of tricky and may need some creative wire bending and/or tape. Better yet, just go to Radio Shack and get a snap-on 9V battery connector, which will connect to the top of the battery and split off into two wires leads which you can just twist and wrap your wire around easily.
  5. Wrap the other end of one wire around the (grooved if you grooved it) graphite tip of one pencil. Similarly wrap the free end of the second wire around the tip of the other pencil. Make sure you wrap the wire snug around the tips and twist it tight when you’re done.
  6. Stick the unwired tips of your pencils down through the cardboard support.
  7. Fill your glass up 3/4 full and dissolve about one tablespoon of Epsom salt in it.
  8. Put your cardboard support on top of the glass so the graphite tips of the pencils are immersed under the Epsom salt solution.
  9. Observe!

What you should see:

You should observe that little bubbles will come off of the tips of each pencil. On the pencil connected to the (-) terminal of the 9V battery (the bigger terminal), hydrogen gas will bubble off. On the pencil connected to the (+) terminal, oxygen gas will bubble off.


What’s going on?

The potential energy of the battery (9V) is high enough that it can break apart the electron bonds that hold the water molecules in the solution together. The Epsom salt helps carry the electric current through the solution, since water isn’t a particularly good electrical conductor. The graphite in the pencils serves as an inert electrical conductor that helps to carry the electric current into the solution (see what happens if you use a conductor other than metal in Variation 3 below).

Variation 1: Make Chlorine Instead of Oxygen

If you use table salt instead of Epsom salt you may notice it start to smell like a pool. This is because NaCl (table salt) causes a side reaction in water when it’s electrolyzed which generates chlorine at the (+) terminal instead of letting oxygen form. The oxygen instead forms hydroxyl ions (OH) which make the solution turn basic (or alkaline, that is, the pH goes up).

Variation 2: Electroplate Copper Onto Stuff

If you use copper sulfate (CuSO4, a blue crystalline solid available as “root killer’ at most hardware stores) instead of Epsom salt, you will actually cause copper to plate out on the tip of one of the pencils. If you use something other than a pencil for an electrode, like a metal spoon or something, you can plate copper out over as much of the spoon as is immersed in the water!

Variation 3: Rust Stuff Really Fast

If you use an iron or copper wire instead of a pencil for the electrode attached to the (+) terminal of the 9V battery, you can watch it oxidize in fast forward. The iron will turn a rusty color. The copper will turn Statue of Liberty blue-green.

What does this have to do with aerogels?

Uh, it’s Chemistry and it’s kind of cool!

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