Chemistry for non-specialists

Teach with flair and enthusiasm with the help of this collection of experiments and demonstrations specially designed for non-specialists.

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    Reacting elements with oxygen

    Many elements react with oxygen on heating. These reactions and the properties of their products illustrate the periodic nature of the elements.

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    An effervescent Universal indicator ‘rainbow’

    Sodium carbonate solution is added to a burette containing a little hydrochloric acid and Universal Indicator. The two solutions react, with effervescence, and the liquid in the burette shows a ‘rainbow’ of all the colours of Universal Indicator from red through orange, yellow, green and blue to purple.

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    The reaction of magnesium with steam

    Plunge a burning magnesium ribbon into the steam above boiling water and allow the hydrogen that is formed to burn – or collect it over water and test it with a lighted spill.

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    The reaction between zinc powder and sulfur

    A reaction between zinc and sulfur can be used to demonstrate that chemical changes are often accompanied by a large change in energy.

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    Making a reaction tube

    Many reactions between gases and solids are suitable for demonstrations and class practicals. Making reaction tubes is an excellent lesson in physical chemistry in its own right as well as being cheaper than buying in expensive material.

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    Competition for oxygen

    This experiment involves the reaction of a metal with the oxide of another metal. When reactions like these occur, the two metals compete for the oxygen. The more reactive metal finishes up with the oxygen (as a metal oxide). If the more reactive metal starts as the oxide then no ...

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    Electrolysis of potassium iodide solution

    Filter paper soaked in potassium iodide solution which also contains starch and phenolphthalein is placed on an aluminium sheet which forms one electrode of an electric circuit. The other electrode is used as a ‘pen nib’ to ‘write’ on the filter paper. When this electrode is made positive and the ...

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    An alternative to using compressed gas cylinders

    Cylinders of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide are very expensive. Getting gas under pressure allows exciting demonstrations such as igniting balloons filled with hydrogen gas.

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    Making nylon: the ‘nylon rope trick’

    Perform this ‘trick’ with a solution of decanedioyl dichloride in cyclohexane floated on an aqueous solution of 1,6-diaminohexane. As nylon forms at the interface, it can be pulled out as fast as it is produced forming a long thread: the ‘nylon rope’.

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    Flame tests (the wooden splint method)

    The method described in this experiment is intended for students to carry out and avoids the need for the use of concentrated hydrochloric acid. It also avoids the cost and contamination problems associated with the use of nichrome or platinum wires.

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    Neutralisation circles

    Drops of dilute acid and alkali are placed a few centimetres apart on a sheet of filter paper and allowed to spread out until they meet. A few drops of Universal indicator are then placed over the moist area of the filter paper and a band of colours showing the ...

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    The methane rocket

    A strong plastic bottle is filled with a 2:1 ratio of oxygen to methane and the mixture ignited with the bottle standing on a suitable ‘launch pad’. The mixture ignites with a loud bang and the bottle flies several metres.

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    The howling/screaming jelly baby

    Reacting a ‘jelly baby’ with molten potassium chlorate.

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    The effect of concentration on reaction rate

    Sodium thiosulfate solution is reacted with acid – a sulfur precipitate forms. The time taken for a certain amount of sulfur to form can be used to indicate the rate of the reaction.

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    Extracting limonene from oranges

    This experiment demonstrates the extraction of plant oils. The experiment also links for tests for unsaturation, and at a higher level, chirality.

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    Diffusion of gases – a safer alternative to bromine

    Demonstration of the diffusion of gases.

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    Making silicon and silanes from sand

    Heat magnesium and sand together to produce silicon by an exothermic reaction. 

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    Reduction of copper(II) oxide by hydrogen

    Determine the formula of copper(II) oxide by reducing it using hydrogen or methane.

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    Testing for negative ions

    This activity is in two parts; first, students make observations while carrying out tests for various negative ions, then they use their observations to help identify the negative ions present in a number of solutions.

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    Cross-linking polymers – alginate worms

    Sodium alginate is a polymer which can be extracted from brown seaweed and kelps. It is one of the structural polymers that help to build the cell walls of these plants. It has some unusual properties and a wide variety of uses.