Sublimation is an interesting physical change. When a substance sublimes, it changes directly from a solid to a gas without passing through the liquid state. Dry ice sublimes, as do iodine and mothballs. This experiment involves the study of another common substance that sublimes – air freshener.
Pieces of solid air freshener are heated in a hot water bath and the vapour caught by cooling with ice. No liquid will be observed so students will be able to appreciate that a solid has turned directly to a gas without passing through the liquid phase. A fume cupboard, or other method of preventing escape to the air, is required for this experiment.
This experiment is best done as demonstration. As it can take several minutes for anything to happen, it would be advisable to have another activity for students while they wait.
Most of the substances in the air fresheners are harmful. This is not a problem in day-to-day use as the vapour pressure and hence the amount which is in the air is low. However, heating them causes them to sublime quickly and they could reach harmful levels in the air so a fume cupboard or other method of preventing escape to the air is necessary.
Access to a fume cupboard
Gloves (for those with sensitive skin)
Beakers (100 cm3), 2
Stand, boss and clamp
Thermometer (-10 - 110 °C)
Kettle (for hot water)
Solid air freshener (HARMFUL), a few lumps
Refer to Health & Safety and Technical notes section below for additional information.
Health & Safety and Technical notes
Wear eye protection and gloves. Work in a fume cupboard.
Air freshener - solid toilet bowl cleaners work best; if possible use a coloured one. If cheap ones containing 1,4-dichlorobenzene (para-dichlorobenzene), C6H4Cl2(s), are used, handle them with tongs in a fume cupboard. para-dichlorobenzene is HARMFUL and DANGEROUS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT - see CLEAPSS Hazcard. Gel-type air fresheners will not work.
a Wear eye protection and work in a fume cupboard. Place a few lumps of air freshener in the bottom of one of the 100 cm3 beakers. Fill the other beaker three quarters full of ice.
b Stand the beaker containing the air freshener in a shallow dish.
c Carefully, clamp the beaker containing the ice in position on top of the beaker of air freshener. See diagram.
d One-third fill the shallow dish with warm water (hotter than 45 °C).
e Observe what happens to the solid. Be patient as it may take a while.
Sublimation is the vaporisation of a solid. The opposite process – the formation of a solid directly from a vapour – is called deposition. The heat from the water bath causes the solid air freshener to sublime. The cold beaker causes the vaporised air freshener to re-form the solid.
If possible use a coloured air freshener and notice that the material that collects on the cold beaker is white. The dye does not sublime because it is not chemically a part of the compound that does sublime. Vapour deposition is an important industrial process for separation and purification.
It is possible to use other materials that sublime including iodine, naphthalene and dry ice (carbon dioxide).
If iodine (HARMFUL, DANGEROUS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT) is used, use only a few crystals and do the activity in a fume cupboard – see CLEAPSS Hazcard
If naphthalene (HARMFUL, DANGEROUS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT) is used, do the activity in a fume cupboard. Naphthalene mothballs must be heated to near 70 °C to sublime – see CLEAPSS Hazcard
Dry ice sublimes at -78.5°C and above. Handle with tongs or thermal gloves. You would not be able to watch this re-form the solid but it is great for observing the change from solid to gas – see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
Health & Safety checked, August 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
Page last updated September 2016
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 .