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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.

A series of three photos is shown. There are two right-facing arrows connecting one photo to the next. The first photo shows a chemical hand warmer. It is a bag that contains a clear, colorless liquid. There is a white disk located to the right inside the bag. The second photo shows the same thing, except the white disc has become a white, cloudy substance. The third photo shows the entire bag filled with this white substance.

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.

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