Chemistry » Thermochemistry » Calorimetry

# Thermochemistry of Hand Warmers

## Thermochemistry of Hand Warmers

When working or playing outdoors on a cold day, you might use a hand warmer to warm your hands (see the figure below). A common reusable hand warmer contains a supersaturated solution of NaC2H3O2 (sodium acetate) and a metal disc. Bending the disk creates nucleation sites around which the metastable NaC2H3O2 quickly crystallizes (a later tutorial on solutions will investigate saturation and supersaturation in more detail).

The process $${\text{NaC}}_{2}{\text{H}}_{3}{\text{O}}_{2}\left(aq\right)\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}⟶\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}{\text{NaC}}_{2}{\text{H}}_{3}{\text{O}}_{2}\left(s\right)$$ is exothermic, and the heat produced by this process is absorbed by your hands, thereby warming them (at least for a while). If the hand warmer is reheated, the NaC2H3O2 redissolves and can be reused.

Chemical hand warmers produce heat that warms your hand on a cold day. In this one, you can see the metal disc that initiates the exothermic precipitation reaction. (credit: modification of work by Science Buddies TV/YouTube)

Another common hand warmer produces heat when it is ripped open, exposing iron and water in the hand warmer to oxygen in the air. One simplified version of this exothermic reaction is $$2\text{Fe}\left(s\right)+\cfrac{3}{2}\phantom{\rule{0.1em}{0ex}}{\text{O}}_{2}\left(g\right)\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}⟶\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}{\text{Fe}}_{2}{\text{O}}_{3}\left(s\right).$$

Salt in the hand warmer catalyzes the reaction, so it produces heat more rapidly; cellulose, vermiculite, and activated carbon help distribute the heat evenly. Other types of hand warmers use lighter fluid (a platinum catalyst helps lighter fluid oxidize exothermically), charcoal (charcoal oxidizes in a special case), or electrical units that produce heat by passing an electrical current from a battery through resistive wires.