Ash to ashes (what's in the little urn?!)
09 July 2013
This summer England and Australia's test cricket teams will play each other five times, over five days. It's long been one of the fiercest rivalries in sport.
But what are they actually playing to win? What's inside that urn?
Finding the right formula to win the Ashes is something both sides are striving for on the pitch but what is the chemical formula of the ashes themselves?
Dr Slipper explains how we went about recreating and analysing the contents of the most famous trophy in cricket, using a Surface Electron Microscope.
"We take a bail and you've got to turn it into an ash.
"If that was just to be put into a fire it would take many, many hours to burn down.
"So we cut it up into little slices so it could go into a crucible in a furnace and cook it for four hours, at 400° centigrade.
"One bail weighed in at 21 grams... the resulting ash at 150 milligrams, so not a lot of solid material.
"To do the analysis the ash needs to be further ground down to reduce the particle size to less than ten microns - one micron is about a thousandth of a millimetre, so that's about a tenth of the width of a human hair."
See below for a link to Flickr and more of these fascinating Surface Electron Microscope images, uncovering the secrets of the Ashes at huge magnification.
© Dr I.J. Slipper/RSC
The RSC and Dr Slipper will be releasing more of the little urn's secrets throughout the summer as our experiment results come in, so look out for those results later in the series.
The electron microscope also gives a reading of the chemistry behind these incredible images.
The chemical analysis of our Ashes shows Carbon, Oxygen, Sodium, Magnesium, Aluminium, Silicon, Phosphorus, Sulfur, Chlorine, Potassium, Calcium, Iron and Copper.
"There's no other way you can identify the components present - you can't use an optical microscope, the material is far too small.
"I would love to get inside the little urn and find out what the real ashes contain. I suspect it's far more complicated than our fairly controlled experiment.
"We don't know exactly how they were burnt, the bails may have been lacquered which may have introduced other elements and caused other chemical reactions upon burning.
"The time that they have been inside the urn, they will have been open to the atmosphere and will have oxidised".
For more information on the contents of the urn, check out the Royal Society of Chemistry's potted history, by clicking on the link below.
The Royal Society of Chemistry Ashes set on Flickr
Surface Electron Microscope images, uncivering the secrets of the Ashes
One of cricket's greatest rivalries is based on one of its greatest mysteries. What's in the urn?
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