Thinking Tech

10-year-old student accidentally discovers explosive new molecule

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Tetranitratoxycarbon may have the potential to store energy, combust or do a little of both.

Despite being somewhat of a hollywood cliche, serendipitous scientific discoveries rarely ever happen. Just ask any scientist and that person will tell you about all the painstaking detail that goes into designing an experiment to hone in on specific probable outcomes. But when they do happen, heck, they make for pretty good stories. And when it's a 10-year old girl accidentally discovering a potentially explosive molecule, it's definitely worth me telling you about it.

The little prodigy in question is fifth grader Clara Lazen, whose class assignment was to build a molecule using one of those modeling kits with the colorful balls and plastic connectors. Many kids would probably throw together a little H2O and call it a day -- but not Clara. She randomly pieced together a combination of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon atoms to create a molecule her chemistry teacher, Kenneth Boehr, had never seen before.

"I just saw that these go together more," Clara told the Fox News local affiliate in Kansas City. "Like they fit more together. And they look better. And all the holes have to be filled in for it to be stable."

Astonished, Boehr emailed his friend Robert Zoellner, a computational chemist at Humbolt State, to confirm whether it was legit. "Ken sent me a picture of the molecule on my cell phone and usually I can tell right away if it’s real," Zoellner says.

This time, he couldn’t.

To check whether Lazen had just discovered a new molecule, he ran the molecule's formula through an Chemical Abstracts, an online database of chemistry research dating back to 1904. He found one match: nitrogylcerin

But (and it's a big "but"), Lazen's molecule, dubbed tetranitratoxycarbon, had a different structural arrangement, which meant they could now tell the world they had just discovered a new molecule. Similar in composition to nitroglycerin, an explosive, Zoellner says tetranitratoxycarbon may have the potential to store energy, combust or do a little of both. At the very least, it's a molecule chemists can attempt to synthesize and toy with to see if there are any possible technological applications.

Boehr and Zoellner have submitted their findings to the journal of Computational and Theoretical Chemistry for publication in the january issue. And, yes, Lazen is listed as a co-author.

"Me and Mr. Boehr were talking about if we sold it we’d split they money,” Clara told Fox News. "And I was like, 'Yeah, I can sell this to the military for money.'"

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure