Try this class practical or demonstration to extract food-grade metallic iron from breakfast cereals using powerful neodymium magnets
Several breakfast cereals contain iron as a mineral supplement. The iron is in the form of iron powder. In this experiment, students can extract the metallic iron from a suspension of crushed cereal in water using a strong (eg neodymium) magnet.
This can be a class experiment or a demonstration as preferred. The experiment is easy to set up, and can be completed in ten minutes.
For the demonstration
- Mortar and pestle, size sufficient to contain 50 g of the cereal
- Beaker, 1 dm3
- Magnetic stirrer and follower (stirrer bar) coated in white plastic (Teflon or nylon)
- Forceps or clean tongs
For the class experiment
- Mortar and pestle, small
- Beaker, 250 cm3
- Strong magnet (eg neodymium magnet) (see note 2 below)
- Breakfast cereal containing iron (see note 3 below)
Health, safety and technical notes
- Read our standard health and safety guidance.
- Neodymium magnets are available from science education equipment suppliers. Care is required when handling these powerful magnets.
- Kellogg’s ‘Special K’ contains a higher proportion of iron than many other breakfast cereals; see the ingredient lists on packets if a different cereal is preferred.
- Crush about 50 g of the cereal to create a powder and place in the beaker with about 500 cm3of water.
- Drop in a white magnetic follower (stirrer bar) and place on a magnetic stirrer for a few minutes.
- Retrieve the stirrer bar with forceps or tongs and study the grey coating it will have acquired, which consists of fine iron powder.
This can be done using the same procedure as for the demonstration. However, it is unlikely that many schools will have sufficient magnetic stirrers, so this alternative may be useful:
- Place a few flakes of cereal on a table or bench surface. Hold the magnet close to the flakes and see if they stick to the magnet or are moved by it.
- Reduce the friction on the flakes by floating four to six flakes on a beaker of water. Hold the magnet close to the flakes and see if they stick to the magnet or are moved by it.
- Reduce the size of some dry flakes by crushing them to a fine powder using a pestle and mortar. Spread the resulting powder on a piece of paper.
- Place a magnet under the paper and move the paper over the magnet. Observe any effect the magnet may be having on the movement of the powder. Do NOT put the magnet in direct contact with or close to the powder without the paper in between. With careful manoeuvring, it should be possible to separate out fine grey specks of iron from the rest of the powder.
In the class experiment, students test whether iron is present in the cereal. In their first test, the cereal is very unlikely to stick to the magnet, and friction is too great to allow the flakes to move on the table or bench surface. Floating the cereal flakes on water reduces friction; however visible movement is still unlikely. Crushing the cereal to a fine powder reduces the size and mass of the particles, and therefore also the friction with the paper. Students should be able to separate out fine grey specks of iron in this final step.
Manufacturers add iron to many cereals – and other food products such as flour – as a finely divided powder of food-grade material. This is believed to react with stomach acid before passing to the small intestine. The body contains enough iron for two small nails, and it is essential for the production of haemoglobin.
It is added in this form (before cooking) because it does not produce any taste or interact chemically with other components of the product. ‘Special K’ packets quote 20 mg of iron per 100 g of cereal. Products such as cornflakes, which are fortified at a lower level, have about 6–7 mg of iron per 100 g, while un-fortified breakfast cereals have 1–2 mg of iron per 100 g.
An able class may wish to test the grey deposit to confirm that it is indeed iron. The iron powder will have to be reacted in a test-tube with dilute hydrochloric acid (LOW HAZARD below 2 M, refer to CLEAPSS Hazcard HC047a and CLEAPSS Recipe Book RB043) to form iron(II) chloride and hydrogen. The presence of iron(II) ions can be confirmed by adding a few drops of potassium hexacyanoferrate(III) solution (LOW HAZARD, refer to CLEAPSS Hazcard HC079 and CLEAPSS Recipe Book) to give the intense colour of Prussian Blue. Eye protection must be worn if this test is carried out.
- Alternative approaches to this experiment are described on a number of websites, mainly from the USA. See, for example, this video on iron in breakfast cereal by Steve Spangler from Sick Science!.
- The Information Center for Sickle Cell and Thalassemic Disorders at Harvard University provided a detailed review of the process involved in iron absorption by the body.
This is a resource from the Practical Chemistry project, developed by the Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society of Chemistry. This collection of over 200 practical activities demonstrates a wide range of chemical concepts and processes. Each activity contains comprehensive information for teachers and technicians, including full technical notes and step-by-step procedures. Practical Chemistry activities accompany Practical Physics and Practical Biology.
© Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society of Chemistry