Watch the video and download the technician notes from the Education in Chemistry website: rsc.li/2XEecGF
Testing for the ‘squeaky pop’ of hydrogen gas has to be one of the most quintessential and memorable chemistry experiments, and lends itself to inquiry opportunities about why some students get louder pops than others, but there isn’t always time to extend the practical. That’s why having a two-minute demo on hand to show the dramatic impact of mixing chemicals in the correct proportions is never a bad plan.
For the bubble mixture
- Deionised water
- Washing-up liquid
- Glycerol (propane-1,2,3-triol)
For the production of hydrogen and oxygen
- Source of hydrogen and oxygen, eg gas cylinder/Mattson gas microscale gas preparation kit (see below)
- 3 cm3 20 vol hydrogen peroxide (irritant)
- 0.05 g potassium iodide
- 3–5 cm3 of 1 M hydrochloric acid
- 0.05 g magnesium powder (flammable)
For the demonstration
- Bubble mixture
- Syringe of H2 (extremely flammable)
- Syringe of O2 (may cause or intensify fire)
- 10 cm3 syringe
- Syringe cap, sticky tack, or small section of silicone tubing with a Hofmann clamp
- Petri dish or similar
- Wooden splints for lighting
- Eye protection
- Ear plugs/ear defenders
Health and safety
- CLEAPSS members should consult SRA027.
- The audience should be two metres away and instructed to cup their hands over their ears. The demonstrator should wear ear plugs/ear defenders.
- Although hydrogen–oxygen combustion may sometimes be demonstrated at the party balloon-scale in large lecture theatres, the smaller spaces in school laboratories are likely to lead to sound levels that could cause hearing damage. Do not deviate from the above protocol or exceed the volumes stipulated.
- Both audience and demonstrator should wear eye protection.
For the bubble mixture, mix together deionised water, washing-up liquid and glycerol (propane-1,2,3-triol) in a roughly 85:10:5 ratio by volume.
Wear eye protection.
A hydrogen syringe and an oxygen syringe can be preloaded from gas cylinders, a Hofmann voltameter, an Andrews gas generator, or produced in situ using the Mattson technique (illustrated in a previous Exhibition chemistry, Lighting up oxygen; also see Bruce Mattson’s free online book Microscale gas chemistry chapter 1 and the video above). Gases can be sealed inside with either a syringe cap or sticky tack.
A hydrogen syringe and an oxygen syringe can be preloaded from gas cylinders, a Hofmann voltameter, an Andrews gas generator, or produced in situ using the Mattson technique (illustrated in a previous Exhibition chemistry, Lighting up oxygen (rsc.li/3xXWBFQ); also see Bruce Mattson’s free online book Microscale gas chemistry, chapter 1 and the video above). Gases can be sealed inside with either a syringe cap or sticky tack.
Connect the syringes of gas one at a time to the 10 cm3 syringe with tight-fitting silicone tubing and push/pull the plungers to draw in 6 cm3 of hydrogen and 3 cm3 of oxygen.
In front of the class
Position the audience two metres away. Both audience and demonstrator should wear eye protection. Fill a Petri dish or similar vessel (see tips box below) with bubble mixture. Keep loaded syringes at least two metres from the dish when not in use.
First demonstrate the effect seen by igniting pure hydrogen for comparison. Slowly bubble approximately 10 cm3 of gas from the pure hydrogen syringe into the solution and remove the syringe to a two-metre distance before igniting the bubbles with a lit splint. The gas will burn unimpressively with a pale orange flame and a very dull pop. You could also demonstrate that a bubble of oxygen alone will visibly intensify the flame of the lit splint.
Now warn the students that the next mixture will produce a loud bang and that they should cup their hands over their ears. The demonstrator should wear ear plugs or ear defenders.
Slowly bubble the contents of the 10 cm3 syringe into the bubble solution and light with a splint at arm’s length. The gases will burn with a loud report.
One potential source of frustration with this demonstration is blowing the bubbles in the Petri dish and having them pop before you can light them. Improve your chances by making up the CLEAPSS bubble mixture recipe described above rather than working with shop-bought bubble mixtures. Connecting a Pasteur pipette to the end of the syringe with a small section of tubing will allow you to generate a raft of smaller bubbles which tend to be more stable than fewer large ones. I find that a plastic tea light holder makes a nice substitute for a Petri dish, plus the narrower vessel with taller sides gives a surface to support the bubbles’ structure from the side and keep them in one place as you inflate them.
In a previous Exhibition chemistry, Eggsplosive chemistry, we saw how changing fuel–oxygen ratios affected flame characteristics, leading to a cleaner burn until the explosive limit was reached. Hydrogen is explosive in mixtures with air ranging between 4–75% so the ‘squeaky pop’ test is quite forgiving, but this demonstration shows the dramatic impact chemists can have on the outcome of a reaction if they fully understand the reaction.
In a previous Exhibition chemistry, Eggsplosive chemistry (rsc.li/3CNyflQ), we saw how changing fuel–oxygen ratios affected flame characteristics, leading to a cleaner burn until the explosive limit was reached. Hydrogen is explosive in mixtures with air ranging between 4–75% so the ‘squeaky pop’ test is quite forgiving, but this demonstration shows the dramatic impact chemists can have on the outcome of a reaction if they fully understand the reaction.
When Henry Cavendish began experimenting with ‘flammable air’ in the 1760s, oxygen had not yet been discovered and the phlogiston theory held the accepted explanation for combustion. But – following reports of the gas produced from the decomposition of what we now know as mercury(II) oxide – Cavendish, Lavoisier and others were quickly able to recognise that burning this in the presence of ‘flammable air’ led to the production of water; hence Lavoisier’s naming of hydrogen (water-maker). The simple chemical equation which describes the loud pop from the bubbles in this experiment would go on to revolutionise our understanding of matter.
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