Special Projects in Analytical Chemistry



      As his special project for analytical chemistry, Brad Buehler chose the forensic investigation of the miraculous appearance of a copper-based foil on the body of a Florida housewife and purported medium named Katie. He was to develop a protocol to study the phenomenon. He consulted with a forensic chemist (Dr. Tony Cantu, US Secret Service, who had spoken on careers in forensic science to students at the college) to develop his case study. He received samples of the foil collected over a several year period, and dissolved the foil in a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids. His plan was to compare the element "fingerprint" of each foil to determine if a pattern existed (i.e., when the medium ran out of foil, she might run down to the hardware store to get a new supply). He also planned to contact manufacturers of similar foils to determine if elemental composition data was available, and try to obtain samples of foil sold in the area local to the medium. The foil was analyzed by atomic absorption spectrometry and inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometry and the investigation is ongoing. Brad will be attending graduate school at the George Washington University, to pursue a career in forensic science.


Figure 1. Investigation of a foil mysteriously appearing on the body the medium Katie.
(A) Dr. Tony Cantu, a forensic chemist for the US Secret Service, explaining the use of lasers for fingerprint identification to students from Mount Saint Mary's College.
(B) Brad Buehler weighs foil samples into polypropylene bottles prior to acid dissolution.
(C) Comparison of the trace element distributions of a control sample of foil and one of the Katie foils (inset shows foil on Katie's back).


      As her special project for analytical chemistry, Maggie Bullard chose to investigate the claim that elements are transmuted in the process of biological growth. Using calcium as the target species, she determined the calcium concentration in the seeds of a fast-growing plant, Brassica Rapa, by atomic absorption spectrometry after a closed-container acid digestion in Teflon. Attempting to keep contamination to a minimum, she grew the seeds until fully germinated (root system and buds) on ashless filter paper media in distilled water. The calcium in the plants was then determined in a manner similar to the seeds. After subtracting the blanks, she found no significant difference in calcium concentration in seeds and plants, which agreed within approximately 10%. The difference could be totally attributed to uncertainty in the blanks. This project gave the student experience in dealing with blanks, sample preparation, and analytical errors, and showed her how easy it is for pseudoscientists to make claims based on insignificant data. She will be attending graduate school in analytical chemistry at the University of Minnesota.


Figure 2. Investigation of biotransmutation by determining the calcium content of seeds and plants.
(A) The seeds were germinated on filter paper media immersed in distilled water contained in Teflon vessels.
(B) Maggie Bullard determines calcium in the plant and seed samples using a Varian SpectrAA640 atomic absorption spectrometer.

[Thanks are due to Professor A.J. Russo of the Science Department of Mount Saint Mary's College, who provided Maggie Bullard with the seeds and facilities to do her experiment; to Professor Steve Braude of the Philosophy Department of the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus, who obtained samples of the Katie foil for Brad Buehler's project; to Dr. Doug Shrader of Varian Analytical Instruments, for the loan of the Varian SpectraAA640 atomic absorption spectrometer and SIPS dilution system for evaluation at Mount Saint Mary's College; and to James Randi, who, through prizes, scholarships, lectures, books and reference facilities offered by his James Randi Educational Foundation, is at the forefront in promoting scientific integrity and education. Mr. Randi offers substantial rewards to students for projects that incorporate the critical evaluation of paranormal claims.]

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Page prepared by: Mike Epstein
Last Modified: 30 April 1999