Tag Archives: molecules

Fun science: the smell of lavender

This weekend, I visited a lavender farm, and thus smelled a lot of lavender. The sense of smell is really an amazing thing. Our vision processes light waves, our hearing processes sound waves– but smell processes many kinds of molecules at concentrations down to parts per billion. We tend to think of smell as a less important sense, but from a scientific standpoint, it’s amazing.

How does smell work?

The short answer is, we don’t fully know. We know receptors recognize different parts of molecules like ketones, alcohols and aldehydes. We don’t know how the brain assembles all the information from the various receptors. Some studies suggest that groups of neurons synchronize in different ways for different scents, while other studies suggest that the locations of receptors that fire create a spatial pattern for each smell. You can find further reading here, but fair warning, it’s tough material.

How sensitive is smell?

We can detect methyl mercaptan, the scent added to natural gas so that we can smell leaks (also the smell of asparagus pee!), down to parts per billion (ppb).

We can also tell the difference between very similar compounds. Linalool, the primary component of lavender oil, exists in two configurations called enantiomers. Both contain the same elements linked in the same way, but the two are mirror images. The left-handed linalool is the primary component of coriander seed and sweet orange flowers. The right-handed linalool is the primary component of lavender and sweet basil. (L)-linalool is sweeter and detectable to 7.4 ppb while (R)-linalool is woodier and detectable to 0.8 ppb.

Left:Left-handed linalool, the primary smell of coriander seed. Right: right-handed linalool, the primary smell of lavender oil. Image from Wikimedia commons.

Smell and Emotions

Studies suggest that the smell of lavender relieves anxiety and can promote sleep. Smell is strongly tied to emotions; the same parts of the brain that process smell store emotional memories.

I wonder if this connection is partially why we discount smell; smell is at its basic core tied to emotions rather than logic. It’s hard to put a smell into words, and science understands our others senses far better. I stood in the room full of lavender, remembering my last visit to a lavender farm with my family, and thought about how amazingly complex our response to little molecules can be.

Fun Science: Why’s platinum so special?

In science, we tend only to learn about a small subset of the elements that populate our world. This is not unreasonable, since 96% of our bodies are composed of just hydrogen, water, carbon, and nitrogen. But there are over a hundred more elements, and they often influence life outside our bodies in ways we don’t hear about. So in today’s post I will talk about platinum.

Platinum is one of the rarest metals in the Earth’s crust. Only 192 tonnes of it are mined annually, where 2700 tonnes of gold are mined annually. When the economy is doing well, platinum can be twice as expensive as gold. So what’s so valuable about it?

Platinum is used a lot in jewelry. Platinum has the appearance of silver, but it doesn’t oxidize and become tarnished like silver. It’s harder than gold, and its rarity can be appealing.

But it’s the chemical properties of platinum that set it apart. Platinum is a great catalyst. This means that platinum facilitates chemical reactions, but is not consumed as the reaction proceeds. The catalytic converter in your car is a platinum catalyst. The catalytic converter helps eliminate a variety of undesirable compounds such as carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and incompletely combusted hydrocarbons. Platinum is also a critical part of current hydrogen fuel cells; it splits hydrogen into protons and electrons.

Platinum doesn’t force reactions to occur, but it makes them easier by reducing the energy required. The image below shows the reaction of carbon monoxide (CO) to carbon dioxide (CO2). The chart at the bottom shows the potential energy before, during and after the reaction. Imagine a ball rolling along the red curve (with platinum) and the black curve (without platinum). The ball on the black curve will need more speed to get over the hump. Any given ball is more likely to get over the red hump. Likewise, the presence of platinum lets CO get over the hump to become CO2. Platinum does this for all kinds of reactions.

activation energy

The reaction takes less energy because once a molecule bonds to the surface of platinum, the bonds within the molecule are a little weaker. Molecules like O-O and H-H can split into singletons, something they would never do off the surface. Below I show an example reaction for CO to COon platinum. This diagram is meant to be illustrative, a possible mechanism for the reaction and to show how platinum helps out. In reality these reactions occur very quickly, and careers can be spent figuring out exact reaction mechanisms.



Platinum is a bit like velcro. Molecules become hooked to the surface, do their reaction, and unstick. If molecules stick and then refuse to unstick, this is called catalyst poisoning, and it’s a big issue in fuel cells. Like velcro, once the hooks are occupied, they can’t do anything else. Platinum is a good catalyst because a lot of things (like hydrocarbons) want to stick to it, but they don’t stick too hard. Other metals either are not attractive enough, or they are too attractive. Platinum is so valuable because, besides being rare, its properties happen to be balanced just right for the reactions we want.