Monday, 5 July 2010

Why Potassium Permanganate?

Some people may find it odd to go through life with a favourite chemical but having passed through a childhood littered with trainspotting, Dr Who, building electronic devices and computers no depth of nerdiness has any surprises left for me any more.

Remember your first images of chemistry: the mad scientist in his laboratory with a huge collection of apparatus on retort stands bubbling away with various coloured liquids. How disappointing those first few chemistry lessons were when nearly all the powders turned out to be white and all the liquids, clear. Where were the pretty colours?! Then, along came Potassium Permanganate! It's just so purple... drop a few crystals into a big flask of water and pretty wisps of pink cloud start to appear... "now this is real chemistry!"

Potassium Permanganate is also a chemical time machine. I may be over romanticising, but that's what this blog is all about. It's a rather strong oxidising agent which gives it a very interesting role in the arts. I'd talked to many of my artistic friends about artificially ageing organic materials: making a sheet of paper or a piece of wood that you'd just got from the shop look as though it'd been kicking round for a hundred years or so. When a very great friend of mine said "oh, don't bother with cold tea... use KMnO4!" and... wow... the effects are stunning. Ask any faker... erm... I mean "restorer" of antiques or any film props man worth his salt how to take a bit of plywood back 3 or 4 hundred years in time and they'll say just the same thing.

The process is a simple one pop a couple of grams in about 100 mL of water and slop the solution on the wood, paper, cloth... well pretty much any organic material and the magic works... bang! it's suddenly a couple of hundred years old.

This piece of wood has just had a quick thin coating so, hopefully, you can see the process in action.

Let it dry out and pop another coat on and you can go back even further. I've been working on a druid staff to pose with at solstice ceremonies and after successive treatments it looks like I've hauled it out of some Iron Age peat bog.

These are just a couple of the wonders of potassium permanganate and there's more to come.

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