Show your students how to make their own mirror with silver nitrate and glucose
In this experiment, students observe what happens when a solution containing silver nitrate (Tollens’ reagent) and a reducing sugar (glucose) react to form silver. As the silver is deposited, students can see a mirror-like coating forming on the inside of the reaction vessel.
The teacher demonstration should take 5 minutes to perform. There are also possible extension activities, each of which would take a similar time.
Although the reaction involved is related to the post-16 study of aldehydes and reducing sugars, this dramatic demonstration will fascinate a wider age range.
The reaction may also be used on a small-scale as a student experiment for post-16 advanced studies in chemistry – see Teaching notes below.
- Eye protection (goggles)
- Round- or flat-bottomed flask, 1 dm3 (see note 9 below)
- Rubber stopper, to fit flask
- Beaker, 250 cm3
- Measuring cylinders, 25 cm3, 100 cm3 and 250 cm3
- Dropping pipette
- Glass rod
- Access to a fume cupboard (for handling ‘880’ ammonia solution)
Note: the quantities listed below are sufficient for three demonstrations.
- Silver nitrate (CORROSIVE, DANGEROUS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT), 8.5 g
- Potassium hydroxide (CORROSIVE), 11.2 g
- Glucose (dextrose), 2.2 g
- ‘880’ ammonia solution (35% w/v) (CORROSIVE, DANGEROUS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT), 30 cm3
- Concentrated nitric(V) acid (OXIDISING, CORROSIVE), 100 cm3
- Purified (distilled or deionised) water, 800 cm3
Health, safety and technical notes
- Read our standard health and safety guidance.
- Wear eye protection (goggles) and disposable nitrile gloves.
- Before performing this demonstration, the teacher should consult the CLEAPSS Hazcards (eg PX087, PP012 and those below) for advice on the hazards of the silver compounds used and formed in this demonstration. Do NOT prepare Tollens’ Reagent in advance. It is likely to explode on standing.
- Silver nitrate, AgNO3(s), (CORROSIVE, DANGEROUS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT) – see CLEAPSS Hazcard HC087.
- Potassium hydroxide, KOH(s) (CORROSIVE) – see CLEAPSS Hazcard HC091b.
- Glucose (dextrose), C6H12O6(s) – see CLEAPSS Hazcard HC040c.
- Ammonia solution, NH3(aq), (CORROSIVE, DANGEROUS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT) – see CLEAPSS Hazcard HC006.
- Concentrated nitric(V) acid, HNO3(aq), (OXIDISING, CORROSIVE) – see CLEAPSS Hazcard HC067.
- Thorough cleaning of the 1 dm3 flask is vital if the demonstration is to succeed:
- First, use detergent and a brush, then rinse with water.
- Next, rinse with concentrated nitric acid.
- Finally, wash out several times with purified water.
- Make up the three solutions needed as follows (do NOT mix any of the solutions together before the lesson):
- Dissolve 8.5 g of silver nitrate in 500 cm3 of purified water to make a 0.1 M solution.
- Dissolve 11.2 g of potassium hydroxide in 250 cm3 of purified water to make a 0.8 M solution.
- Dissolve 2.2 g of glucose in 50 cm3 of purified water.
- After the lesson, the silver can be removed from the silvered flask using concentrated nitric acid. Work in a fume cupboard as nitrogen dioxide (TOXIC) is formed.
- After the demonstration, do NOT save the silver solution in a silver residues container. The solution must be disposed of down the sink with plenty of cold water within 30 minutes of mixing at the start of the demonstration. This is to avoid any chance of the formation of a deposit of silver fulminate, a dangerously explosive substance.
- Place 150 cm3 of the silver nitrate solution in a 250 cm3 beaker.
- Working in a fume cupboard, add ‘880’ ammonia using a dropping pipette until the brown precipitate first formed re-dissolves to give a clear, colourless solution. Less than 5 cm3 of ammonia solution should be needed. The solution then contains the colourless complex ion, [Ag(NH3)2]+(aq).
- Add 75 cm3 of the potassium hydroxide solution. A dark brown precipitate of silver(I) oxide will form. Add more ammonia solution dropwise until this re-dissolves to give a clear, colourless solution. About 5 cm3 of ammonia will be needed. This solution is sometimes called Tollens’ reagent.
- Pour this solution into the 1 dm3 flask and add 12 cm3 of the glucose solution. Stopper the flask and swirl the solution so that the whole of the inner surface of the flask is wetted. The solution will turn brown. Continue swirling until a mirror forms in about 2 minutes.
- When a satisfactory mirror has formed, wash the solution down the sink with plenty of water. Rinse out the flask well with water and discard the washings down the sink. The flask can now be passed around the class.
- An alternative to plating the inside of a flask is to silver plate the outside of small glass objects which can be suspended in the plating solution by hanging them on threads. These objects must be thoroughly cleaned beforehand.
For pre-16 students this demonstration is more likely to be performed for its spectacular nature rather than for the chemical changes that take place. However for post-16 students, these chemical changes may form part of their studies, and the teacher may wish to consider a variant as a student experiment:
- In a new, clean test tube add one drop of 0.4 M sodium hydroxide solution (IRRITANT) to 1 cm3 of 0.1 M silver nitrate(V). Add 1 M ammonia solution dropwise until the precipitate just re-dissolves.
- To this solution, add a few drops of glucose solution and warm gently in a beaker of hot water (do NOT heat the tube directly in a flame) with occasional swirling until the silver mirror forms.
- Discard the solution within half an hour of preparation by washing it down a sink followed by a large amount of water.
The experiment may be repeated as either the large-scale demonstration or as the student version using an aldehydes such as ethanal or propanal. In contrast, a ketone such as propanone does not react, illustrating an important chemical difference between aldehydes and ketones.
Aldehydes reduce Ag+(aq) ions to metallic silver. The aldehydes are oxidised to carboxylate ions. The reaction that occurs using propanal (a safer alternative to ethanal) is:
CH3CH2CHO(aq) + 2[Ag(NH3)2]+(aq) + 3OH–(aq) → 2Ag(s) + CH3CH2COO–(aq) + 4NH3(aq) + 2H2O(l)
Find out more
- The Chemguide page on the oxidation of aldehydes and ketones sets the reactions in this demonstration in a wider context.
- Wikipedia includes further discussion of Tollens’ reagent.
- Another page on Wikipedia provides a brief outline of the history of silvering mirrors.
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
Health and safety checked, 2016
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