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Heads up: This question has never been asked (here) before the way I will ask it here, so let's shed some light on it a bit.

Prelude and anecdote(can be skipped): The other day I was walking home, and I passed a stop sign. I looked at it and asked myself, "What kind of atoms make up this macro-sized metal-like object that visible light enables my eyes to see, which are also atoms I don't know?"

So I thought to myself ... I really should go to physics.stackexchange.com to ask this. They have so many great people there who volunteer their time and help without any immediate financial gain, and there is some very smart people there who are open-minded, and know that repetition is key to success.

The question:

So here I am ... my question is how do you know what materials are composed of?

I ask this because:

1.There are no "grab and go" ways to quickly check out what atoms something is made of. How would I, as a curious person that I am who's into science in all respects, determine what the world is around me?

2.The tools needed to do this don't come cheap ... how could I, by using cheaper tools or techniques, determine what kind of atoms, molecules/chemical compounds, determine which exact atoms make up the things visible light enables me to see around me?

I would like to look at something and go beyond just "It's plastic-like", but actually dig down to which monomer, polymer, or molecular structure it is, and how I can break it down to the individual atoms.

Please ... I ask this with all respect, all seriousness, and all desire to want to further know the materials, compounds, and structures of the objects around me.

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A few simple tests like measuring density, electrical conductivity, scratch resistance (simply estimate it using existing known-substances) and thermal capacity should allow you to narrow a lot of things down to just one or a few materials. –  Brandon Enright Dec 11 '13 at 22:18

2 Answers 2

Well, the fancy experimental way would be to use things like mass spectrometry or x-ray diffraction, or many other techniques.

Doing it without those machines though... maybe chemistry would be your best bet. If you had a suspicion of what the material might be, you could use known chemical reactions to see what it does and doesn't react with, what it produces, etc. Note: This can obviously be dangerous, so I'm not suggesting you do this.

The fact that most things (like a stop sign) are a composite material made of many different materials (the metal, paint, fluorescent additives) will make this much more difficult.

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Thanks for the help! I am working on chemistry knowledge. –  Jump if not Equal Dec 11 '13 at 21:44

There is no universal, cheap, easy way to do identify unknown materials. There are some easy methods that apply to some materials: if something is attracted to a magnet then it is ferromagnetic, and probably contains a substantial amount of iron, nickel, or cobalt. There are a few other rules of thumb, but the general problem is complex and is the reason analytical labs can make money. If there was a cheap and simple way of doing it, everybody would be doing it!

The easiest way to to find out what something is made of is probably to ask the person who made it.

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