Chemistry Lesson

Published in the December 2011 Issue Published online: Oct 17, 2011 Tyler J. Baum
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Science was never my strong suit in high school or college. I avoided the sciences as much as possible, particularly Chemistry. It's taken my adult years for my brain to develop enough that I can now understand what high school students are supposed to learn before their frontal lobes have fully developed. Or before people in the state of California are old enough to legally drive.

I recently went through the self-guided tour at the EBR-1 Atomic Museum near the Idaho National Laboratory west of Idaho Falls and stuff finally started to click, even though I've gone there for field trips growing up. How frustrating that must've been to my teachers growing up!

So it's amazing to me that something as simple as one oxygen atom can be so essential to life on earth. It's what produces the air we breathe, and, when it forms a tight bond with twin hydrogen atoms, we have water-without which our planet would be desolate. Life would not exist without water.

Then you take that same single oxygen atom, which doesn't like to be alone, and try to combine it with two other oxygen atoms just like it. Those three molecules of oxygen bonding together (albeit temporarily) create something else that's beneficial to our existence: ozone.

It's the ozone layer of Earth's atmosphere that filters ultraviolet rays, which, in large doses, are harmful to living things.

Two oxygen atoms bonded together are pretty stable. Diatomic oxygen is stable enough to compress, liquefy and store, and it's quite reactive. And then you combine a third oxygen atom, which, in the words of Jim Eagleton of the U.S. EPA as written in "Ozone in Drinking Water Treatment" (1999), is like a very nervous, reactive, excitable and corrosive sidekick.

"This monatomic O1 atom does not like to be alone, and near the Earth's surface, it refuses to stay with the fairly stable O2 double bond. It is active and reactive, with energy needing to be channeled in some useful direction. It will combine with virtually anything on contact, or at least try. This active O1 will not stabilize until it can break away from the O2 and form a stable bond with something else, virtually any other molecule that is available."

He also says that ozone is a very strong disinfectant and oxidizer.

"Any pathogen or contaminant that can be disinfected, altered or removed via an oxidation process will be affected by ozone. It is the strongest of all molecules available for disinfection in water treatment, and is second only to elemental flourine in oxidizing power."

It's the disinfecting properties of ozone that's gotten the attention of companies like Guardian Manufacturing, based out of Cocoa, Fla. Guardian manufactures ozone machines, used to generate ozone as an effective means of storage sanitation. In this issue, you'll read about the origin of their company as well as their high-quality products, and how they've innovated in order to prevent their machines from oxidizing, like "ozone boxes" made by other manufacturers.