Earth & Conservation

These Stunning Microscopic Visuals Make It Easy to Envision Chemistry

Envisioning Chemistry is a series of visually striking imagery that brings the fascinating world of microscopic chemical reactions to life.

An image of metal displacement, from Envisioning Chemistry. | Beauty of Science
An image of metal displacement, from Envisioning Chemistry. | Beauty of Science

Thanks to awesome advances in optical technology, today we can clearly see things that few humans in the history of civilization have ever seen before.

That's the guiding principle behind Envisioning Chemistry, an ongoing art-meets-science collaboration between the Chinese Chemical Society and an online education initiative called Beauty of Science. The idea is to make chemistry more engaging to the general public by creating images and videos that bring the fascinating world of microscopic chemical reactions to life.

In a series of short videos (viewable below), filmmaker and photographer Wenting Zhu reveals the improbable beauty of chemical processes like precipitation, combustion, and those oddly captivating chemical byproducts known as bubbles. Zhu captured the images in the Envisioning Chemistry series using high-speed cameras, a Lumix GH4100mm macro lens, an Olympus SXZ16 microscope, and thermal imaging, unveiling a tiny world of wonder.

“Envisioning Chemistry tries to capture a purely objective record of chemical reactions by using a macro lens and a microscope,” Zhu told Seeker. “In this way of viewing, we have a chance to look at tiny shapes and textures generated in this process that allows us to perceive the unseen.”

An image of metal displacement, from Envisioning Chemistry. | Beauty of Science

Scientists from previous eras could generate these same chemical reactions and even describe what was happening at the microscopic scale, but visualizing and sharing this imagery with the public was a tall order. Like telescopic images of the solar system or pictures of Earth from orbit, Zhu's videos give us a new perspective on the natural world.

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Zhu, who is also an accomplished painter, graduated in 2016 from the Academy of Arts and Design at Tsinghua University. She is now working with Beauty of Science, an educational initiative that distributes videos and images to schools and maintains online libraries of its work on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Vimeo.

“I think video can be a powerful media for communicating science to the general public,” said Beauty of Science founder Yan Liang, who also films and edits materials and serves on the faculty at the University of Science and Technology of China.

One production, called “Chemical Garden II,” shows the osmotic growth of six different metal salts when dropped into a solution of sodium silicate.

“Due to the osmotic pressure, water enters the membrane and breaks it, generating more insoluble membranes,” Liang said. “This cycle repeats and the salt grows into all kinds of interesting forms.”

“I particularly like the growth of copper nitrate inside sodium silicate solution,” Zhu remarked. “The bubbles look like big eyes.”

A video exploring chemical precipitation at the microscopic scale looks a bit different from the rain outside your window. This sequence of images shows the reactions that occur when positively and negatively charged molecules combine to form an insoluble solid called a precipitate.

“In classroom demonstrations, precipitation reactions typically occur in test tubes or beakers,” Zhu said. “By shooting chemical reactions up-close with a macro lens — and removing the distraction of glassware — we found a new way of enjoying these simple but beautiful reactions.”

The workspace, though, was a little cramped.

“Chemical reactions took place in a container with sides that are two centimeter in length,” she said.

While bubbles are perhaps the most familiar sign of a chemical reaction, generated when any kind of gas is produced by chemical reactions in a solution, Envisioning Chemistry makes them novel again. In one of the project’s videos, Bubbling III, five gas-generating reactions were recorded with a specially calibrated microscope.

“Bubbles are always round, but Bubbling III shows a completely different feeling,” Zhu noted.
In a hypnotic sequence of images, the microscopic camera brings the viewer in so close to the bubbles that spatial overlapping and reflected light create cascades of circles and curves.

“Maybe it is because the microscope gave a special perspective, making the common things more mysterious,” Zhu said. “Bubbles occurred again and again, like a rhythmic dancing without end.”

Displacement, however, is less commonly understood. It’s a chemical phenomenon that occurs when a more reactive metal and a less reactive metal interact within a salt solution, creating microscopic crystal formations.

“Zinc is more reactive than silver, lead, copper, and tin,” Liang said. “As a result, when pieces of zinc metal were dropped in solutions of silver nitrate, lead nitrate, copper sulfate, and tin chloride, microscopic metal crystals emerged on the surface of zinc and started to grow.”

“Each metal’s growth has its own unique personality,” Zhu added. “Some of them look like plants and the crystals of copper look like corals.”

Then there’s “Elemental Burning,” which offers a close-up view of the real-time combustion of five elements: carbon, sodium, phosphorus, magnesium, and sulfur.

“Even though elements are the simplest forms of matter,” Zhu said, “the combustion reactions of each element is very unique and full of interesting transformations.”

Liang hopes that the Envisioning Chemistry project will ultimately attract new scientists to the field.

“To some students, chemistry can be a boring subject depending on how it is taught,” he said. “By showing the beauty of chemical reactions through visually engaging videos, we hope students will have a second thought about chemistry, and hopefully fall in love with it.”

Liang said his group's efforts to attract new talent to the field of chemistry is ultimately a practical matter — and maybe even urgent.

“Since many tough problems like climate change, energy, and pollution will need bright chemists to solve them in the near future,” he said, “it is important to get more kids excited about chemistry now.”