In these activities students investigate hydrogels – polymeric smart materials. They are found in many products, including disposable nappies and hair gel. The practical is fun to do and the results dramatic.

Class practical

In this pair of activities students investigate hydrogels – polymeric smart materials. They are found in many commonly available products including disposable nappies and cheap hair gel. The practical work is fun to do and the results are sudden and dramatic.

Lesson organisation

To do all the practical work takes about 30 mins. The hair gel experiment is a good quick introduction to hydrogels, while the nappy experiment is more detailed.

If time is available, it is worth considering combining this experiment with Experiments with hydrogels - plant water storage crystals.

It is a good idea to ask students to make detailed observations of each part of the experiment.

Apparatus Chemicals

Eye protection

Plastic gloves for those with sensitive skin

Hair gel experiment (each group):

Hair gel

Petri dish or lid

Teaspoon or similar – an ordinary spatula is a bit small

Disposable nappies experiment (each group):


Large ice cream tub or similar container (Note 1)

Dessert spoon or similar measure

Stirring rod

Large beaker or plastic tub to hold at least 600 cm3

Each working group requires:

Disposable nappy, 1

Distilled water, about 500 cm3 per group

Access to:

Hair gel

Sodium chloride (table salt)

Refer to Health & Safety and Technical notes section below for additional information.

Health & Safety and Technical notes

Read our standard health & safety guidance

Wear eye protection. 

Hair gel - For the hair gel the cheaper and nastier the better. Allow about one large teaspoonful per group.

Disposable nappy - Pampers Baby Dry® nappies work well, but any ultra-absorbent disposables should be fine. As an alternative to using nappies and extracting the hydrogel, it is possible to order sodium polyacrylate from Sigma Aldrich.

Distilled water - If distilled water is not available, tap water can be used but the results are not as spectacular.

1 The ice cream tub is for collecting the inside of the nappy and is safer than collecting it over newspaper or similar. If tubs are in short supply, large zip-lock bags can be used. Students put the nappy in the bag, zip it up and manipulate it until all the hydrogel is extracted and then proceed as per the directions.


Hair gel
a Put a blob of hair gel onto the petri dish lid. A large teaspoonful is fine.

b Gently sprinkle salt from a spatula over the hair gel.

Disposable nappies
a Cut the middle section out of the nappy – the thicker piece that is designed to absorb the urine. Discard the other piece.

b Make sure the ice cream container is completely dry - wipe it with a paper towel if necessary. Any moisture in the tub stops the experiment from working properly.

c Wear eye protection for the next step. Put the centre piece of the nappy into the ice cream container and gently take it apart. Small white grains should start coming away and this is what you are trying to collect. Keep gently pulling the nappy apart until you have collected as many of the grains as you can. Do not do this roughly or you will lose your product and put a lot of dust and fluff into the air. Avoid breathing in any of the dust.

d Remove and dispose of all the fluff and other parts of the nappy, keeping the grains in the bottom of the tub. They are heavier and fall to the bottom, which makes it easier to separate them out.

e Estimate the volume of the grains.

f Pour them into the large beaker and add about 100 cm3 of distilled water. Stir. Keep adding distilled water until no more can be absorbed and stir between each addition. Estimate the final volume of the hydrogel.

g Add a dessertspoonful of salt and stir.

Teaching notes

This activity can be used to enhance the teaching of ionic and covalent bonding, or hydrogels can be considered as an interesting polymer as well as an example of a smart material. Hydrogels are smart materials because they change shape when there is a change in their environment – in this case it is the change in the concentration of ions.

Students need to have some knowledge and understanding of ionic and covalent bonding, reversible reactions, and acids and bases to understand what is happening.

Hydrogels are polymers that can retain many times their own weight in water. They are often polymers of carboxylic acids that ionise in water, leaving the polymer with several negative charges down its length. This has two effects. First, the negative charges repel each other and the polymer is forced to expand. Secondly, polar water molecules are attracted to the negative charges. This increases the viscosity of the resulting mixture still further as the polymer chain now takes up more space and resists the flow of the solvent molecules around it.

The polymer is in equilibrium with the water around it, but that equilibrium can be disturbed in a number of ways. If the ionic concentration of the solution is increased – eg by adding salt – the positive ions attach themselves to the negative sites on the polymer, effectively neutralising the charges. This causes the polymer to collapse in on itself again. Adding alkali removes the acid ions and moves the equilibrium to the right; adding acid has the opposite effect.

There are a large number of hydrogels and they are sensitive to different pHs, temperatures and ionic concentrations. By using a mix of monomers to create the polymer these characteristics can be fine-tuned.

The hydrogels that are commonly available and are used in this practical activity are sensitive to salt concentration, but do not show much change across the pH range that can be readily investigated in the classroom. However, they do lend themselves very well to a range of investigative practical work. For example, their volume in different amounts of water or in different salt concentrations can be measured. For this type of investigation it is best to use either plant water crystals or to order sodium polyacrylate from Sigma Aldrich – this has a smaller crystal size and gives faster results.

Students should make detailed notes on their experiments, noting changes in volume, colour and any other observations. Some expected observations could include:

Hair gel
The hair gel shrinks in size very quickly when the salt is added. After a couple of minutes all that is left is some liquid in the petri dish.

Disposable nappies
About 10 cm3 of hydrogel can be extracted from the nappy core. (Exactly how much depends on the make and the size of the nappy.) The hydrogel swells up extremely quickly (much quicker than with plant water storage crystals). It absorbs about 500 cm3 of distilled water giving a very viscous mixture. When salt is added, the viscosity immediately reduces and the mixture is easier to stir. The hydrogel releases the water and settles on the bottom of the beaker.

Health & Safety checked, 2016


This Practical Chemistry resource was developed by the Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society of Chemistry.

© Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society of Chemistry


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Page last updated October 2015