Catalyst Lab (Elephant Toothpaste)

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Students will be able to create a decomposing chemical reaction of their making.

Big Idea

Rapidly decompose hydrogen peroxide using a catalyst to produce a column of soap bubble resembling toothpaste fit for an elephant.

NGSS Background

This lesson is based on California's Middle School Integrated Model of NGSS.

NGSS Performance Expectation (PE): (MS-PS1-2) Analyze and interpret data on the properties of substances before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred.

Science and Engineering Practice 3: Planning and carrying out investigations

Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI): PS1.B: Chemical Reactions - In a chemical process, the atoms that make up the original substances are regrouped into different molecules, and these new substances have different properties from those of the reactants.

Crosscutting Concepts (CCC): Energy and Matter - The transfer of energy can be tracked as energy flows through a designated or natural system.

Common Core ELA Literacy/Writing Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects: (WHST.6-8.3) Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.

I run this lab as a series with two other labs, Decomposing Water Lab and Surface Area Lab.

Lab Set-Up (Pre-lab)

15 minutes

This lab uses ordinary hydrogen peroxide 3% (H2O2) and active yeast  - both easily found in grocery stores - to produce an exothermic decomposition reaction using a catalyst. An exothermic reaction releases heat and the decomposition reaction tears a complex molecule (H2O2) into simpler molecules of oxygen (O2) and water (H2O). This reaction occurs naturally over several months and can be accelerated by sunlight (hence hydrogen peroxide is sold in brown bottles). A catalyst (active yeast) is used to accelerate this reaction, but is not part of the reaction.

Your students should observe the properties of the reactant (H2O2) and the properties of the products (O2) and (H2O) to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred (MS-PS1-2) (see Evidence of a Chemical Reaction).

The reaction is described below:

Elephant Toothpaste Video

2H2O22H2O + O2

The higher percentage of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) used, the more energetic the reaction will be. I use 3% because it is cheap, available, slow, and safe. 

CAUTION: Higher concentrations of hydrogen peroxide 30% (H2O2) are caustic and will produce a nasty burning itch along with a mark. Hydrogen peroxide is a base and is slippery (properties of a base). It is used as a disinfectant because it burns the infection away.

I use hydrogen peroxide 30% (H2O2) as a demonstration in class to get a bigger wow-factor (see Elephant Toothpaste Demonstration). Hydrogen peroxide 3% (H2O2) is safe to touch, Hydrogen peroxide 30% (H2O2) is not. The percentage refers to the amount of hydrogen peroxide in distilled water. Hydrogen peroxide 100% (H2O2) is used as rocket fuel in rocket packs.

TIP: This lab requires students to measure a liquid in a graduated cylinder, make sure you have explained that a liquid in a graduated cylinder forms a meniscus (curve) and the measurement should be taken at the bottom of the meniscus.

  1. Measure 50mL of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) pour the contents into the clean/empty water bottle.
  2. Add 2 drops of food coloring to the water bottle for effect. If the color is dripped down the side the final soap column may have colored stripes like many popular toothpastes.
  3. Add 1 drop of liquid soap. The soda is used to catch the oxygen (O2) as it is released from the reaction, otherwise the students would only observe a fizzle. 

This reaction will occur naturally over several months, it needs a catalyst (active yeast) to accelerate it to something that can be observed in a few minutes.

TIP: When weighing a granulated solid, I have my kids fold a full sheet of paper in half and place it on the scale. If the scale is set to 4g then the scale should be balanced. Since this lab needs five grams of active yeast, set the scale to 9g with the paper on it. Use the handle of a spoon to carefully add active yeast until the scale is again balanced. Pick up the paper and place the edge of the fold at the opening of the water bottle and dump the contents into the bottle.

Once the reaction has begun, I have my students start a timer, and record their observations at regular intervals.

NOTE: If the students hold the bottle they will be able to feel a temperature difference, as this reaction gives off heat (exothermic). I try to have them feel the bottle without giving away the fact that it is exothermic. I also use a lighter and touch the flame to the oxygenated soap. The soap should fizzle and pop, proving the presence of oxygen (O2) (see Evidence of a Chemical Reaction).

I was once showing this reaction to a group of Cub Scouts and thought is would be beneficial to show them an example of a base. So I had them rub hydrogen peroxide 30% (H2O2) between their fingers. In a few minutes the boys were crying and washing their hands with soap didn't help. Needless to say, I wasn't popular with the moms that night. 

Investigation (Lab)

30 minutes

Each student receives a lab sheet with directions and a data chart to record their observations. 

Materials needed: hydrogen peroxide H2O2 – 3%, clean/empty water bottle, graduated cylinder, triple-beam balance scale, liquid soap, food coloring, active yeast, eye protection

CAUTION: This lab may spit hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) into the air. Always insist upon student eye protection. 

TIP: You can perform this experiment without the graduated cylinder and triple-beam balance scale, just eyeball the amounts. I collect used clean water bottle for this activity.

Student Directions:

  1. Fill the graduated cylinder with 50 ml of hydrogen peroxide H2O2 – 3%
  2. Pour hydrogen peroxide H2O2 – 3% into empty water bottle
  3. Place 2 drops of food coloring into water bottle
  4. Squirt 1 drop of liquid soap into water bottle
  5. Weigh 5 grams of ‘active yeast’ and place on a blank sheet of paper
  6. Add the active yeast to the water bottle, use the blank paper as a pouring guide
  7. Swirl contents to mix the active yeast
  8. Start timer
  9. Record observations
  10. DO NOT CAP

CAUTION: I purposely do not include a cap with these water bottles, we talk about how this reaction, if sealed, is a potential bomb. Bomb making is NOT chemistry and is a potential expellable offense.

This sort of lab requires the students to follow precise steps in order to produce the desired results (SP3: Planning and carrying out investigations/ CCLA: 6.SP.B.5).

Publishing Results (Post-lab)

15 minutes

As part of their post-lab, I have my students prove that they observed a chemical reaction (color/light, temperature change, solid if formed, odor is generated, or gas is produced (MS-PS1-2). Through this investigation they should understand that the atoms that made up hydrogen peroxide (reactant) were rearranged into oxygen and water (products) and these new products have different properties from the original reactants (DCI: PS1.B). You may also want to explain that the reactant energy was transferred to the product energy in a predictable fashion (CCC: Energy and Matter).

TIP: I teach my students a mnemonic sentence for remembering the evidence of a chemical reaction.

Cats tell stories of ghosts.

C - color/light

T - temperature change

S - solid if formed (precipitate)

O - odor is generated

G - gas is produced

They must also identify the type of reaction they observed (synthesis, decomposition, combustion, replacement). They must present evidence in order for their observations to be confirmed.

I also created a mnemonic for remembering the types of chemical reactions.

Squids don't carry roses.

S - synthesis

D- decomposition

C - combustion

R - replacement

I have my students draw two pictures, one for evidence of a chemical reaction and the other for the type of reaction in their interactive notebooks.  As part of their training, I explain the difference between drawing for fun and creating accurate scientific drawing. Scientific drawings require a title, minimum of three colors (pencil doesn't count), label with arrows, and a brief text explaination. I often require students to redo their work if it is not scientific enough.


50 minutes

If you need to review the topics covered in this lesson, the following PowerPoints provide review materials:

Types of Chemical Reactions

Evidence of a Chemical Reaction

Rates of Chemical Reactions

Exothermic & Endothermic Reactions