Molecule of the Day

The Royal Society of Chemistry is offering a million pounds to anyone who can bring them 100% chemical-free material.

The manufacturers of a popular “organic” fertiliser recently drew the attention of the public when it claimed in promotional materials the product contained no chemicals whatsoever.

The product’s manufacturer makes the fantastic claim to be “100% chemical free” in its advertising and on its packaging. The back of the packaging lists its chemical-free ingredients, which include phosphorus pentoxide and potassium oxide.


  1. #1 6EQUJ5
    November 26, 2008

    I saw that this morning, and it cracked me up. Then I got real about it, which spoiled the fun.

    If mainstream media were at all functional, this story would be splashed everywhere, and every newsreader would be in on the joke, sharing it with their audience, but that’s never going to happen.

    Instead, the story will go nowhere, I fear, and the same ‘no chemicals’ crap will keep on going.

    (Sadly, if David Letterman or Jay Leno announced this story, their audience wouldn’t get it.)

  2. #2 Handles
    November 26, 2008

    Phosphorus pentoxide and potassium oxide? What is the “natural”, “organic” source for such water-sensitive things?

  3. #3 Alex Besogonov
    November 26, 2008

    So, vacuum should be OK? Right?

  4. #4 rfguy
    November 26, 2008

    So if I could get my hands on a few kg of neutronium, would that count?


  5. #5 Lunar Mark
    November 26, 2008

    “100% chemical-free material”

    The best I can offer is ‘100% free’ chemical material.

    But the shipping & handling costs are enormous!

  6. #6 Steinn Sigurdsson
    November 26, 2008

    Easy. As long as the container can contain chemicals.

    I can bring them some nice photon gas, or, with some difficulty, a splendid, if short lived, pair plasma.

  7. #7 Chemgeek
    November 26, 2008

    What about a properly prepared vacuum tube? The contents of the tube would be 100% chemical free, almost. Certainly >99% chemical free, but with a million pounds on the line, I doubt they would be willing to budge on the 100% requirement.

  8. #8 greg
    November 27, 2008

    helium or some other noble gas: no covalent or ionic bonds in there. this might satisfy organic chemists. for the physical chemists, make it at 25 degrees C and 1013.25 millibars.

  9. #9 Andrew Dodds
    November 27, 2008

    I suppose a fragment of Neutron star material would count. Handling may break some Health and Safety regulations, though, as would a small black hole.

    A quark-gluon plasma would probably fit the bill as well, but again containment for longer than Plank timescales may prove tricky.

  10. #10 Alan
    November 27, 2008

    Sadly some people here can’t see the intelligence behind Letterman’s clown act.

  11. #11 Andrew
    November 27, 2008

    Can you call a 100% vacuum a material though?

  12. #12 Russ
    November 27, 2008

    Here’s another similar incident of preying on public chemophobia and ignorance, that I’ve now seen on two separate signs in my city. Dry cleaners with huge signs in their windows stating that their processes use “100% Organic Solvents”

  13. #13 magista
    November 27, 2008

    Well, I’m certainly not alone in proposing the handy “box o’ vacuumTM“… Suppose the fertilizer manufactureres simply present the contents of their heads, instead? Certainly seems as though they could satisfy the requirements.

  14. #14 katie
    November 27, 2008

    Hilarious! I love it!

  15. #15 Uncle Al
    November 27, 2008

    who could place in my hands any material I consider 100% chemical free

    Material Vacuum does not qualify, the Periodic Table is excluded (chemical elements). Neutronium is expensive to transport, jellium requires background countercharge, James L. Dye’s electrides require a chemical matrix. Molecular sieves and hyper-empty metal-organic frameworks are volume (potentially good) nanodispersed in chemical matrices (definitely bad).

    Photons are stable non-chemical material entities. Photons have momentum, right? Stuff! Ask for his palm and shine a flashlight upon it.

  16. #16 Alex Besogonov
    November 27, 2008

    Muonium should definitely fit the bill.

    Also, it has a half-life long enough to fly through his arms satisfying the ‘place in my hands’ condition.

  17. #17 Jita
    November 29, 2008

    I was about to suggest the vacuum box, as well. ^^ Though, the box itself would be made of chemicals… hrm. Why not just toss the guy into the vacuum? 😀

    I seriously giggled when I saw that, though. It reminded me of an activity in Bio I, where the teacher said, “In these phials is a chemical…” And I thought, “Water is a chemical…” and that’s what it turned out to be. 😀

  18. #18 Brian
    November 30, 2008

    Several years ago at an ACS meeting in New Orleans I was disturbed to find an ad for “chemical free beer”. Ugh.

  19. #19 Adam Engelhart
    November 30, 2008

    Uncle Al: Alas, I think that anyone savvy enough to make this bet would claim that the photons were all being reflected or absorbed and converted to heat, and therefore were not “in [the bettor’s] hands.” But then again, I’m a lawyer who pretends to be a scientist (or perhaps the other way around, some days), so what do I know?

    Jita: In middle school I had a science teacher who called on us to identify a set of unknown liquids (by measuring boiling and freezing points and the like), assigning each to one group of class members. He said that we couldn’t go by color, as he had put a “reagent” in them. I was somewhat puzzled, as I knew what the word meant. In any event, the outcome was the same as in your case: they were all water.

  20. #20 milkshake
    December 1, 2008

    Vegetable oil extraction plant in Mexico City had a funny mishap few years ago – a lot of their solvent run off, got into sewers, which eventually ignited and blew manholes, fires shooting up for miles.

    Greenpeace used this as an example of corporate cover-up: Whereas the factory announcement was that the escaped substance was “light gasoline”, their independend investigation later uncovered that it actually was a highly explosive, hazardous substance known as hexane.

  21. #21 VInce Noir
    December 1, 2008

    HAHAHA I love the “100% organic” solvents sign at the dry cleaners. I wonder if the dry cleaner realizes how misleading that is, or if they are just as ignorant.

    It’s like “lite” olive oil…it has the same amount of fat per tablespoon, just a “lite” taste. You wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve talked to who don’t understand this concept.

  22. #22 John Spevacek
    December 2, 2008

    There are still some “chemical free” sunblocks/sunscreens – nano-sized TiO2. Obviously the liquid base must be chemical free too.

  23. #23 MattXIV
    December 3, 2008


    I think/hope it’s a joke. All I know is that if I’m ever in the tuna canning business, I’m advertising that my fish contains “wholesome organic mercury compounds”.

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