Arbitrary Substance Identification

All right, this can quite possibly turn out to be the silliest question I’ve ever asked in GQ, but I want a toy to play with. My background in chemistry is very limited but I am eager and able to learn. Today I woke up with the idea that it would be cool to have some sort of a… chromatographer… spectroscope… err… thing in my apartment. You see my problem, I don’t even know what I want.

Basically my goal is to be able to feed it inorganics and simple organic samples and get some sort of statistics that can be used to identify the substances involved. I know next to nothing about the practical aspect of these things so I don’t even know if for something this complex I’d need a single device or a multi-room lab costing tens of millions of dollars. I guess it’d be fun if I could identify things like ammonia, chlorine, table salt, baking soda, aspirin, caffeine, sucrose, glucose, etc. How much space/time/money/education do I need for this? Is there a single device?

I told you it was silly.


Ok, searching around the web it seems that what I want is actually a fairly small device akin to the HP 6890 series gas chromatograph. It seems these can be acquired used for a price of a used car. Anything cheaper?

Well, there’s basic organic analysis, the sort you do in an introductory university organic chemistry lab course. For that, you’ll need some glassware (one of these kits should do nicely), a well-ventilated area, a heating mantle, a cold water source, and some basic solvents (reagent-grade water, ethanol, and acetone).

With that, some standard tables and some patience, it should be possible to do basic identification of organic substances based on boiling point/melting point, isolate color and crystalline structure, etc. Add a few more hazardous reagents, and you could do thin-layer chromatography for analysis.

As for “you put it in and it tells you what you have” devices…those are typically very expensive. That gas chromatograph system that you mentioned is one; there’s also HPLC (High-Performance Liquid Chromatography) and EM (IR, UV, Raman, etc) spectroscopy systems, starting at “stupidly expensive” and rising to “astronomically expensive”.

There’s also mass spectrometry and NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) systems. These start at “astronomically expensive” and go up from there.

Education-wise, a university course or three in laboratory chemistry couldn’t hurt. A typical gas chromatograph or IR spectroscope wouldn’t output data that a layman would be able to understand, anyway.