Key to krypton Science

Discovering krypton… much before Superman

This mystical glow belongs to krypton, the element that lends its name to Superman's home planet.   | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When I tried searching “krypton” on the Internet, the top ten results almost alternated between two topics. While one set corresponded to krypton the chemical element, the other set referred to the fictitious planet Krypton – from which the comic book superhero Superman hails from.

Back in the 19th century, a Scot by the name William Ramsay and his Englishstudent Morris Travers were searching for gases in the helium family. The two Brits believed that a lighter chemical existed to fit the gap left in the Periodic Table between argon and helium.

In that sense, their discovery was in fact an accident. Their process involved boiling a sample of liquified air to get rid of the water, nitrogen, oxygen, helium and argon and finding a lighter element that they expected would fill the gap.

The researchers, however, overdid the evaporation, leaving only a heavy gas sample behind.

The residue was placed in a Plucker tube connected to an induction coil to produce a spectrum with bright yellow and green lines. The light spectrum when analysed showed that it belonged to an element hitherto unknown… a real element had been discovered on May 30, 1898 that would go on to inspire fiction.

Since they had to look for the element by removing everything else, Ramsay and Travers gave element number 36 the name krypton, from the Greek word for ‘hidden’, kryptos. It turned out to be apt for it is literally hidden in the earth’s atmosphere, comprising one part per million by volume.

This colourless, odourless, rare noble gas does make some compounds, the most common of which is krypton difluoride. The rare nature of this element makes it expensive and hence it has limited usability. It is used in some form of lighting, dating and also won Ramsay, who was also involved in the discovery of helium, argon, xenon and radon, the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1904.

Superman’s home planet was first referred to forty years after the discovery of krypton, in a comic book published in June 1938. The cryptic name, the element’s glow or just the way it sounds so cool are a number of explanations provided for why the name Krypton was zeroed in for the planet.

The fictional mineral kryptonite, that weakens Superman and threatens his existence, and the planet Krypton, have probably earned more fans than the chemical ever will. But then again, you now know which came first… krypton the element and not Krypton, Superman’s home.


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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 4:04:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/Discovering-krypton%E2%80%A6-much-before-Superman/article14345981.ece

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