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Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

How Do Transition Lenses Work?

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Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

If you’re thinking about getting transition lenses, consider this: Every time you do something as simple as walking out of a building, you could watch a chemical reaction happen literally right in front of your eyes. 

Armed with chemical compounds that spring to action under ultraviolet light, transition lenses darken even on cloudy days to keep out those damaging rays. Then, when the coast is clear, they simply return to transparency. 

Transition or “photochromic” glass was originally developed in the 1960s by Donald Stookey, a chemist at Corning Glass Works and a prolific inventor. (Stookey is most famous for discovering the super durable and extremely popular kitchenware material known as CorningWare, which he actually found accidentally after setting up a test reaction at 900°C instead of 600°C.) Soon after Stookey patented the material, Roger Araujo, another Corning chemist, used his breakthrough to develop the first photochromic lenses.

In 1965, Corning commercialized the first generation of transition lenses under the brand “Bestlite.” Three years later, these were dropped in favor of the more reliable Photogray lenses, named for their bluish gray hue when darkened. This color comes from the tiny amounts of the compound silver chloride (<0.1 percent) dispersed throughout the glass. When exposed to UVA light (315 nm – 400 nm), silver gains an electron from chloride to become silver metal, and gets the ability to absorb visible light and appear darker. They found that this reaction would work with any halogen or element from the same column in the periodic table as chlorine that is capable of giving away one electron to silver. 

The same darkening process is also used for developing photographic film except that film exposure is permanent, while photochromic lenses possess another component, such as copper chloride, that helps silver return to its original, non-absorbing state once it’s away from UV light. 

With the introduction of plastic lenses in the 1980s came the next generation of transition lenses based on thin films of organic compounds. These mostly carbon molecules—such as pyridobenzoxazines, naphthopyrans, and indenonaphthopyrans—react to UVA light by rearranging their chemical bonds into new species that can absorb and essentially block UV and visible light. Like tiny transformers, they can switch between either form depending on the presence or absence of UV light.

Plastic transition lenses are lighter and thinner than their glass counterparts, but their organic films are more susceptible to degradation than the silver halides used in glass.

But for both glass and plastic transition lenses, the darkening process happens almost instantaneously, while becoming clear takes anywhere from three to five minutes—which can be disorienting indoors. The clearing reaction is so much slower because it can’t rely on the driving energy of UV light. One trick to speeding up the reaction is to add heat energy by running the lenses underneath warm water.

Another inconvenience that can’t be avoided as easily comes from modern car windshields. Some are specially designed to filter out UV light, making it difficult for lenses to activate the darkening effect needed for driving.

Transition glasses may or may not be right for you, but they’re an excellent example of the everyday chemistry that’s happening in plain sight.  

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11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
6 Radiant Facts About Irène Joliot-Curie
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though her accomplishments are often overshadowed by those of her parents, the elder daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie was a brilliant researcher in her own right.


A black and white photo of Irene and Marie Curie in the laboratory in 1925.
Irène and Marie in the laboratory, 1925.
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Irène’s birth in Paris in 1897 launched what would become a world-changing scientific dynasty. A restless Marie rejoined her loving husband in the laboratory shortly after the baby’s arrival. Over the next 10 years, the Curies discovered radium and polonium, founded the science of radioactivity, welcomed a second daughter, Eve, and won a Nobel Prize in Physics. The Curies expected their daughters to excel in their education and their work. And excel they did; by 1925, Irène had a doctorate in chemistry and was working in her mother’s laboratory.


Like her mother, Irène fell in love in the lab—both with her work and with another scientist. Frédéric Joliot joined the Curie team as an assistant. He and Irène quickly bonded over shared interests in sports, the arts, and human rights. The two began collaborating on research and soon married, equitably combining their names and signing their work Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie.


Black and white photo of Irène and Fréderic Joliot-Curie working side by side in their laboratory.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Their passion for exploration drove them ever onward into exciting new territory. A decade of experimentation yielded advances in several disciplines. They learned how the thyroid gland absorbs radioiodine and how the body metabolizes radioactive phosphates. They found ways to coax radioactive isotopes from ordinarily non-radioactive materials—a discovery that would eventually enable both nuclear power and atomic weaponry, and one that earned them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.


The humanist principles that initially drew Irène and Frédéric together only deepened as they grew older. Both were proud members of the Socialist Party and the Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes (Vigilance Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals). They took great pains to keep atomic research out of Nazi hands, sealing and hiding their research as Germany occupied their country, Irène also served as undersecretary of state for scientific research of the Popular Front government.


Irène eventually scaled back her time in the lab to raise her children Hélène and Pierre. But she never slowed down, nor did she stop fighting for equality and freedom for all. Especially active in women’s rights groups, she became a member of the Comité National de l'Union des Femmes Françaises and the World Peace Council.


Irène’s extraordinary life was a mirror of her mother’s. Tragically, her death was, too. Years of watching radiation poisoning and cancer taking their toll on Marie never dissuaded Irène from her work. In 1956, dying of leukemia, she entered the Curie Hospital, where she followed her mother’s luminous footsteps into the great beyond.


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