Time lapse video of ‘tin pest’ metallic phase change

Computers & Mobile Science

What’s going on in this cool time-lapse video from Italian YouTuber wwwperiodictableru isn’t a chemical reaction in a formal sense. It’s not oxidation or some other type of traditional corrosion. Turns out metallic or “white” tin spontaneously changes its so-called beta crystal structure at temperatures below 13 C to the crumbly alpha structure of “grey” tin. It’s the same stuff before and after–just different allotropes of the same element. The transformation, known as “tin pest” (Wikipedia), catalyzes itself–once it starts it just gets faster and faster.

There is a popular, if scientifically dubious, story that blames part of the failure of Napoleon’s infamous Russian campaign on the fact that the buttons on his soldiers’ coats were made of white tin, which was fine in Europe, but decayed into useless gray tin in the brutal cold of the Russian winter, and thereby prevented them from properly buttoning their coats. Implausible for lots of reasons, it turns out, but still a good yarn.

[Thanks, William Beaty!]

6 thoughts on “Time lapse video of ‘tin pest’ metallic phase change

  1. www.humblefacture.com says:


    Another weird metal on metal crystallographic change

  2. Bill Coleman says:

    Is there a change in temperature associated with this phase change? Like water or wax melting?

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      Not sure exactly what you mean. There is a change in temperature “associated” with the phase change, in that it doesn’t happen above 13C. If you mean, is heat lost by the metal during the change from white to grey tin, then, again, the answer is yes.

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and makezine.com. My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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