Why are there no chemistry sets for adults?

As the year turns towards Christmas, the thoughts of a chemistry editor naturally turn towards that staple present, regularly unwrapped across the world: the chemistry set.

Chem C2000

Source: © Thames and Kosmos

This up-to-date kit isn’t the one I opened one Christmas past, but it does show that they’re still available, and still contain compounds more exciting than baking soda and vinegar

I too unwrapped one of these in my youth. Was it instrumental in my eventual school, university and career path? Probably not: I have to confess that it didn’t see as much use as it could have done. I can barely even remember any of the experiments I did, although one sticks in the memory very clearly. That was evolving hydrogen using aluminium foil (a milk bottle top, scrunched up into the test tube), with the help of my dad. Naturally, we tested the open end of the tube with a lit splint and were rewarded with a loud and satisfying POP. It was loud enough to bring the rest of my family into the kitchen pretty quickly, to check we were still alive – and that the kitchen was still standing.

You may be expecting me to bemoan how neutered and boring today’s kits are compared to those of my youth and the even more distant past. But I’m not sure that’s the case – a quick search has revealed sets with some pretty interesting-looking compounds inside. But why are chemistry sets just for kids? Where can I buy one for adults?

There are adults who ‘play’ with chemistry for a hobby, as you can discover in our feature on hobby chemists. What strikes me on reading their stories is their respect for what they’re doing: for the compounds they handle, for their local laws and for their neighbours (who would have to live with any nasty smells or noisy bangs).

Of course, not every chemist or wannabe-chemist has the inclination, budget or space to do full-scale chemistry experiments at home. The difficulties in setting up a suitable experimental space are a reasonable barrier to entry, and although the internet alleviates some problems with obtaining chemicals, their safe handling and storage are also problematic. But there are other hobbies that involve chemistry – and I wonder if chemists are over-represented in them. Making beer, wine or cider at home all involve careful measurement, reactions and the chance for controlled experimentation, so it’s no wonder I know of so many chemists who try this.

If hobby chemistry suffers from an image problem – illicit experiments in the basement for example – then more widely shared examples of good practice could help to remedy that. So if you’re an ardent hobby-chemist, or have a particularly vivid memory of your childhood chemistry set, we’d love to hear your story through the usual means.