Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Better Living Through Chemistry

I love cleaning tips, especially the kind that only involve a few easy-to-obtain household items. Apparently baking soda is just the magical all-purpose cleaner, but maybe some of you already knew that.

Here's an awesome little cleaning trick you might not have seen before though: how to remove silver tarnish without rubbing, scrubbing and fruitlesslyQ-tipping into all those nooks and crannies.

What to do: place a large piece of aluminum foil on the bottom of a pot that fits whatever it is you're planning to de-tarnish. Boil a couple of quarts of water -- enough to cover the item--then turn off the heat. Add in a few teaspoons of salt per quart and a quarter cup of baking soda per quart. Then simply submerge the item in the solution and cover. In a few minutes, you can check it and you'll see the tarnish magically disappears.  If there's a lot of tarnish built up it may take a little longer, and reheating the water can help the reaction. Pull the silver piece out of the water with tongs (it will be hot from the water!). Rinse it, then buff it with a soft cloth.

I'm utterly fascinated by how this works.  We spent all last night pulling out silver pieces and putting them in the solution, then pulling them out to ooh and ahh.

So here's what I found about how it works.  The black tarnish that develops on silver is actually silver sulfide, formed when the silver reacts with sulfur compounds in the air. If you're used to using silver polishes, or even toothpaste, which was always my "go-to," you're actually rubbing off the silver sulfide layer, but of course, taking some of the silver along with it.

When you use the aluminum foil and soda solution you're actually converting the silver sulfide back into silver.  This works by creating a reaction in which the sulfur is transferred to the aluminum (the silver item must be in actual contact with the aluminum foil), creating aluminum sulfide.  You may notice a sulphuric smell coming from the pot after the reaction, and if you've de-tarnished a few things, as we did, you'll notice the aluminum foil turns dark and tarnished.

For a dramatic demonstration of the reaction, check out this YouTube video.

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