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?

A bail, sawn up and ready to be turned into ashes
The Royal Society of Chemistry teamed up with Dr Ian Slipper, from Greenwich University, to try to solve one of sport's greatest mysteries.

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.

The ashes of a bail, magnified 35,000 times on a Surface Electron Microscope

© Dr I.J. Slipper/RSC
Dr Slipper carried out a number of controlled laboratory condition tests, using X-ray diffraction, X-ray fluorescence as well as the electron microscope.

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.

The chemical analysis of the Ashes
Dr Slipper explains what this sort of analysis allows us to find out: "We're able to see things that are not seeable, particularly with things like ashes where you have such very, very fine grain size, as we've seen on the electron microscope.

"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.

Related Links

Link icon The Royal Society of Chemistry Ashes set on Flickr
Surface Electron Microscope images, uncivering the secrets of the Ashes

The Royal Society of Chemistry guide to the history 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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