I could give you several reasons I haven’t blogged in awhile: paid writing jobs are up; late evenings (the time I’m usually hacking away at the keyboard) have been consumed with reading—and then watching—The Hobbit, followed immediately by book one of The Lord of the Rings; the Fairy Herb Garden is taking shape, after hours spent weeding and digging out massive roots; we were babysitting sheep that needed to be fed every three hours; and, finally, this week and last, the kids have put aside their regular work for bigger projects. Each of them have chosen a natural phenomenon to research, write a report about, prepare a trifold board (à la typical science fair presentation style) and present. They will also do a related art project and science experiment. Zahra has chosen caves and Noah has chosen volcanos.
While researching possible experiment ideas for volcanos, we came upon Trashcano. Being very much over baking soda and vinegar reactions (which aren’t representative of volcanos, anyway), we were looking for something different. More science-y. Bigger. Better. More accurate. Something a kid could get excited about.
And let me tell you, Trashcano is that something. We watched a YouTube video demonstration and right away, Noah said, “I want to do that!” Of course he did. Trashcano involves building pressure inside a trashcan filled with water and watching it explode—not a bubbly mess contained in a baking sheet on your kitchen table, but rather a huge eruption column you have to stand at least 5 meters away from. The build-up of pressure and the eruption column are more true to volcanic eruptions than the traditional baking-soda-and-vinegar experiment.
After reading about the experiment regularly performed on university campuses, we couldn’t help but get excited. Most of the supplies could be found around the house or the local hardware store: a 35-gallon contractor-grade trashcan was our most expensive purchase, but it could be used after the experiment. Plastic soda bottle, duct tape, two bricks, safety goggles and gloves for two, plastic funnel, measuring tape, pencil and paper—easy.
Liquid nitrogen…not so much. Social media helped me spread the word, and of course a good friend of ours has a regular supply of liquid nitrogen. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I have the coolest friends. Not only does he have liquid nitrogen and experience with handling it, but he also has a giant parking lot to perform the experiment in and an excavator with an attachment for moving pallets on for easily relocating 35 gallons of water. Non negligible.
Most importantly, though, when I explained what we wanted to do, there was a gleam in his eyes followed by more than one story of explosives in his childhood. One couldn’t ask for a better lab partner than Elwood Quinn.
He was game for our experiment, and so we returned to the farm after dinner on Thursday to meet him and set up our experiment. We placed the trashcan in the middle of the parking lot. Elwood had a large barrel on a pallet in the barn, and we filled it with water right at the source. Elwood using farm machinery to move the water to our trashcan in the parking lot was impressive and the first reason the kids had for squealing and running around the parking lot in excitement.
We filled the trashcan with water and poured in two packets of red Jell-O because…well, this is a volcano and we wanted our magma/lava to be red. Then we threw in some “tephra”: objects that the volcano would spew out. The kids then backed up and Zahra got out her iPad to film.
Let it be noted here that Elwood, with a raised eyebrow, declined my offer of safety goggles and gloves. I myself put on the goggles and the gloves and was covered in long sleeves, pants and closed rubber boots, despite the hot weather. I may also have closed my eyes at certain points, but let’s move on.
There were a couple failed attempts: syringe falling into the canister of liquid nitrogen, quick escape of gas that led to two episodes of bubbling rather than erupting, a bit of problem-solving and solution-finding—all noted, in the name of science. A willingness to identify the problem, solve it and try again.
But third time’s a charm. Elwood made a dipper with wire and a plastic cup. He scooped up some liquid nitrogen and poured it into the funnel I was holding at a precise angle over the plastic soda bottle (which was duct-taped to two bricks). After fumbling with my gloves, I screwed on the cap and hurriedly placed it in the bottom of the trashcan while Elwood jumped in his truck. He drove the getaway car, I ran away in the opposite direction, and then—yes! Success! We had a red eruption column that sucked in the sides of the trashcan and made it jump off the ground.
After jumping around with excitement for a while, we took the tape measure and measured the distance from the volcano to where the tephra had fallen. There were lots of laughs and a “man missing!” A plastic figurine that we couldn’t locate at first. He unfortunately died, squished underneath one of the bricks. The plastic soda bottle had ruptured, which was impressive to see.
Best. Science. Experiment. Ever. So thrilled. We watched the video of it dozens of times. You can see it here.
So yesterday, Noah and I wrote up a report of his experiment. He drew a to-scale map of the dispersing of the tephra. Then he painted a volcano on his trifold board.
That’s why I haven’t blogged in a while, and I’m hoping that more events like Trashcano will keep me from blogging regularly in the future!