Metal Projects That Help You Explore Chemistry

Chemistry Projects with Metals and Alloys

Liquid silver metal

 LEONELLO CALVETTI/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

There are many interesting chemistry projects you can do using metals and alloys. Here are some of the best and most popular metal projects. Grow metal crystals, plate metals onto surfaces, identify them by their colors in a flame test and learn how to use them to perform the thermite reaction.

Flame Test

Flame Test - Copper Sulfate
Flame test performed on copper sulfate in a gas flame. Søren Wedel Nielsen

Metal salts may be identified by the color of flame they produce when they are heated. Learn how to perform the flame test and what the different colors mean. The flame test explores the colors produced by metal salts. One characteristic of metals is that they tend to have multiple oxidation states. In other words, metal atoms of a single element can have different numbers of electrons. This property also explains why solutions of metal salts (especially the transition metals and rare earths) tend to be very colorful.

Thermite Reaction

Thermite reaction between aluminum and ferric oxide.
Thermite reaction between aluminum and ferric oxide. CaesiumFluoride, Wikipedia Commons

The thermite reaction basically involves burning metal, much as you would burn wood, except with much more spectacular results. The reaction can be performed with pretty much any transition metal, but the easiest materials to obtain are typically iron oxide and aluminum. The iron oxide is just rust. The aluminum is easy to obtain, but needs to be finely powdered to get the surface area needed for the reaction. An Etch-a-Sketch toy contains powdered aluminum, or it can be ordered online.

Silver Crystals

This is a photo of a crystal of pure silver metal, deposited electrolytically.
This is a photo of a crystal of pure silver metal, deposited electrolytically. Note the dendrites of the crystals. Alchemist-hp, Creative Commons License

You can grow crystals of pure metals. Silver crystals are easy to grow and may be used for decorations or in jewelry. This project uses silver nitrate and copper to grow the metal crystals. Once you have these materials, you can also make the silvered glass ornament also featured on this list.

Gold and Silver Pennies

You can use chemistry to change the color of copper pennies to silver and gold.
You can use chemistry to change the color of copper pennies to silver and gold. Anne Helmenstine

Pennies ordinarily are copper-colored, but you can use chemistry know-how to turn them silver or even gold! No, you won't be transmuting the copper into precious metal, but you'll learn how alloys are made. The regular exterior of a penny is copper. A chemical reaction plates the pennies with zinc, making them appear silver. When the zinc-coated penny is heated, the zinc and copper melt together to form golden-colored brass.

Silver Ornaments

This silver ornament was made by chemically silvering the inside of a glass ball.
This silver ornament was made by chemically silvering the inside of a glass ball. Anne Helmenstine

Perform an oxidation-reduction reaction to mirror the interior of a glass ornament with silver. This is a wonderful project for making holiday decorations. You can find hollow glass ornaments from craft stores. The chemical reagents needed for this project are readily available from education science supply stores.

Bismuth Crystals

Bismuth is a crystalline white metal, with a pink tinge.
Bismuth is a crystalline white metal, with a pink tinge. The iridescent color of this bismuth crystal is the result of a thin oxide layer on its surface. Dschwen, wikipedia.org

You can grow bismuth crystals yourself. The crystals form rapidly from bismuth that you can melt over ordinary cooking heat. Bismuth can be ordered online or sourced from some fishing weights and other objects.

Copper Plated Ornament

Metal Star Ornament
Metal Star Ornament. Andrea Church, www.morguefile.com

Apply a redox reaction to plate a layer of copper over zinc or any galvanized object to make a pretty copper ornament. This project is a good introduction to electrochemistry, as it uses easy-to-find materials and safe chemicals.

Liquid Magnets

Top view of a ferrofluid in a dish, placed over a magnet.
Top view of a ferrofluid in a dish, placed over a magnet. Steve Jurvetson, Flickr

Suspend an iron compound to make a fluid magnet. This is a more advanced do-it-yourself project. It's also possible to collect ferrofluid from certain audio speakers and DVD players. Either way you get the ferrofluid, you can explore its interesting properties using magnets. Remember to keep a barrier between the magnet and the ferrofluid, as they will stick together.

Hollow Pennies

US penny

 Image Source / Getty Images

Perform a chemical reaction to remove the zinc from the inside of a penny, leaving the copper exterior intact. The result is a hollow penny. The reason this works is because the composition of a U.S. penny is not homogeneous. The interior of the coin is zinc, while the exterior is shiny copper. You'll need to abrade the edge of the coin to allow the zinc inside to react.

Iron in Breakfast Cereal

Iron symbol in buckwheat

 Daria Soldatkina / Getty Images

There is enough iron metal in a box of breakfast cereal that you can actually see it if you pull it out with a magnet. Many grains are naturally high in iron, such as buckwheat. However, breakfast cereal is fortified with iron. The particles are very small, so you need to wet the cereal and mash it up to extract the iron. Because iron sticks to a magnet, you place a paper towel or napkin between the cereal and magnet to collect the metal particles. Compare different cereals to see what you get.