Why Do I Need a Carbon Monoxide Detector?

by Mark Wolfman on 2014-05-25

What if I told you carbon monoxide detectors are a scam? Well I'd be lying. Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that gets into your red blood cells and messes everything up; knowing when it's in your house is worth the investment. It doesn't help that it's colorless and odorless either. We had some furnace troubles last winter and after a night of not being sure if we'd die quietly in our sleep, I decided to buy a CO detector ($20 at my local hardware store). In order to understand why carbon monoxide is so deadly, we first need to learn a little about how the body transports oxygen.

It starts with red blood cells. These are special cells that are really rich in a molecule called hemoglobin. It's a big curled up protein with an iron atom in just the right place. This iron atom wants electrons and holds on to the extra ones that are in a molecule of oxygen. The rest of the protein makes sure there's a space that's just big enough to fit an oxygen molecule (more on this later). Each molecule of hemoglobin has four of these iron centers. When the red blood cells are in a place with lots of oxygen, like your lungs, these four sites fill up quickly. When the cells are in an area with low oxygen, like your muscles during a workout, then hemoglobin rearranges and lets go of the oxygen so your muscle can use it to turn carbs into energy.

An iron atom can bind an oxygen molecule while the rest of the protein makes a nice pocket that keeps other things out of the way.


Ask a Chemist

by Mark Wolfman on 2014-05-23

Update (2018-08-27)

I've stopped answering questions posted to the "Ask a Chemist" page. I was getting asked about specifics that were outside of my area of expertise and didn't make for good blogging fodder. If you have a chemistry question, I recommend posting it on the chemistry stack exchange.

Ever wonder why water and oil don't mix? Well maybe not, but if you have anything similar that you've wanted an answer to then you've come to the right place. Leave a comment with your question and maybe I'll write a post about it.

Examples of good questions:

  • How does C-4 work?
  • Why do cars rust more in the Northern US?
  • Why is water wet? (seriously)

Examples of bad questions:

  • I couldn't think of any. I'll post some here if they get asked.


Hello, world!

by Mark Wolfman on 2014-05-23

So I've decided to start a blog. I think I'll make it about chemistry. You know, explaining everyday phenomena in a way that's both informative and easy to understand. Who knows if I'll succeed. I'm also planning to throw some stuff in about going to grad school and computer programming.

I'll probably need a fair amount of content to post so if you have chemistry related questions, I'd love to hear about them. I've put up a thread here. Leave a comment with your question and I'll see what I can dig up. I'm thinking of starting out with a post on how oxygen gets transported from your lungs to your muscles.