Easy Indicators

Indicator rainbow, reproduced with kind permission of Isobel Everest, @CrocodileChemi1

Recently on Twitter CrocodileChemist (aka Isobel Everest), a senior school science technician (shout out to science technicians, you’re all amazing) shared a fabulous video and photo of a “pH rainbow”.

The effect was achieved by combining various substances with different pH indicators, that is, substances that change colour when mixed with acids or alkalis.

Now, this is completely awesome, but, not something most people could easily reproduce at home, on account of their not having methyl orange or bromothymol blue, or a few other things (that said, if you did want to try, Isobel’s full method, and other indicator art, can be found here).

But fear not, I’ve got this. Well, I’ve got a really, really simple version. Well, actually, I’ve got more of an experiment, but you could make it into more of a rainbow if you wanted. Anyway…

This is what you need:

  • some red cabbage (one leaf is enough)
  • boiling water
  • mug
  • white plate, or laminated piece of white card, or white paper in a punched pocket
  • cling film/clear plastic wrap (if you’re using a plate)
  • mixture of household substances (see below)
  • board marker (optional) or pen
  • plastic pipettes (optional, but do make it easier – easily bought online)

First, make the indicator. There are recipes online, but some of them are over-complicated. All you really need to do is finely chop the red cabbage leaf, put it in a mug, and pour boiling water over it. Leave it to steep and cool down. Don’t accidentally drink it thinking it’s your coffee. Pour off the liquid. Done.

If you use a plate, cover it with cling film

Next, if you’re using a plate, cover it with cling film. There are two reasons for this: firstly, cling film is more hydrophobic (water-repelling) than most well-washed ceramic plates, so you’ll get better droplets. Secondly, if you write on a china plate with a board marker it doesn’t always wash off. Ask me how I know.

Next step: hunt down some household chemicals. I managed to track down oven cleaner, plughole sanitiser, washing up liquid, lemon juice, vinegar, limescale remover and toilet cleaner (note: not bleach – don’t confuse these two substances, one is acid, one is alkali, and they must never be mixed).

Label your plate/laminated card/paper in punched pocket with the names of the household substances.

Place a drop of cabbage indicator by each label. Keep them well spaced so they don’t run into each other. Also, at this stage, keep them fairly small. Leave one alone as a ‘control’. On my plate, it’s in the middle.

Add a drop of each of your household substances and observe the colours!

Red cabbage indicator with various household substances

IMPORTANT SAFETY NOTE: some of these substances are corrosive. The risk is small because you’re only using drops, but if working with children, make sure an adult keeps control of the bottles, and they only have access to a tiny amount. Drip the more caustic substances yourself. Take the opportunity to point out and explain hazard warning labels. Use the same precautions you would use when handling the substance normally, i.e. if you’d usually wear gloves to pick up the bottle, wear gloves. Some of these substances absolutely must not be mixed with each other: keep them all separate.

Here’s a quick summary of what I used:

A useful point to make here is that pH depends on the concentration of hydrogen ions (H+) in the solution. The more hydrogen ions, the more acidic the solution is. In fact, pH is a log scale, which means a change of x10 in hydrogen concentration corresponds to a change of one pH point. In short, the pH of a substance changes with dilution.

Compound Interest’s Cabbage Indicator page (click image for more info)

Which means that if you add enough water to acid, the pH goes up. So, for example, although the pH of pure ethanoic acid is more like 2.4, a dilute vinegar solution is probably closer to 3, or even a bit higher.

Compound Interest, as is usually the case, has a lovely graphic featuring red cabbage indicator. You can see that the colours correspond fairly well, although it does look like my oven cleaner is less alkaline (closer to green) than the plughole sanitiser (closer to yellow).

As the Compound Interest graphic mentions, the colour changes are due to anthocyanin pigments. These are red/blue/purple pigments that occur naturally in plants, and give them a few advantages, one of which is to act as a visual ripeness indicator. For example, the riper a blackberry is, the darker it becomes. That makes it stand out against green foliage, so it’s easier for birds and animals to find it, eat it and go on to spread the seeds. Note that “unripe” colours, yellow-green, are at the alkaline end, which corresponds to bitter flavours. “Ripe” colours, purple-red, are neutral to acidic, corresponding with much more appealing sweet and tart flavours. Isn’t nature clever?

You can make a whole mug full of indicator from a single cabbage leaf (don’t drink it by mistake).

Which brings me to my final point – what if you can’t get red cabbage? Supermarkets are bit… tricky at the moment, after all. Well, try with some other things! Any dark-coloured plant/fruit should work. Blueberries are good (and easy to find frozen). The skins of black grapes or the very dark red bit of a rhubarb stalk are worth a try. Blackberries grow wild in lots of places later in the year. Tomatoes, strawberries and other red fruits will also give colour changes (I’ve talked about strawberries before), although they’re less dramatic.

For those (rightly) concerned about wasting food – you don’t need a lot. I made a whole mug full of cabbage indicator from a single cabbage leaf, and it was the manky brown-around-the-edges one on the outside that was probably destined for compost anyway.

So, off you go, have fun! Stay indoors, learn about indicators, and stay safe.

EDIT: after I posted this, a few people tried some more experiments with fruits, vegetables and plants! Beaulieu Biology posted the amazing grid below, which includes everything from turmeric to radishes:

Image reproduced with kind permission of Beaulieu Biology (click for larger version)

And Compound Interest took some beautiful photos of indicator solutions extracted from a tulip flower, while CrocodileChemist did something similar and used the solutions to make a gorgeous picture of a tree. Check them out!


If you’re studying from home, have you got your Pocket Chemist yet? Why not grab one? It’s a hugely useful tool, and by buying one you’ll be supporting this site – it’s win-win!

Want something non-sciency to distract you? Why not check out my fiction blog: the fiction phial. There are loads of short stories, and even (recently) a couple of poems. Enjoy!

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The acid that really does eat through everything

acid burnThanks to the big screen, many of us think of acids as dangerous, burn-through-anything substances.  Think of those scenes in the Alien movies, where the alien’s blood drips through solid metal, destroying everything in its path.

Of course the vast majority of acids are much more boring.  Vinegar (which contains ethanoic acid) and citric acid (found in, guess what, citrus fruits) are common acids that we eat all the time, and they don’t burn holes in your mouth.  There’s an even stronger acid, hydrocholoric acid (HCl), in your stomach and not only does it not burn you from the inside out (usually), it actually helps you to digest your food and keeps you safe from nasty bacteria.

But there is an acid that’s really, properly scary.  And its name is hydrofluoric acid.

Hydrofluoric acid has the chemical formula HF, but unlike HCl you won’t find this one in a school laboratory, and if it turns up in your stomach you’re in very big trouble.  In true movie-acid style it’s capable of dissolving many materials, and is particularly well-known for its ability to dissolve glass (which is mainly silicon dioxide).  It will also dissolve most ceramics (which contain aluminosilicates: compounds made of chemically-bonded aluminium, silicon and oxygen).  And, like many other acids, it also reacts with metals, so storing it is a bit tricky.  Where do you put something that eats through its container? Well, these days it’s stored in special plastic bottles, but in the 17th century when it was first discovered chemists had to use glass bottles coated inside with wax, and hope the coating was a good one.

HF has been an important industrial chemical for centuries.  It’s used to etch patterns into, and clean, glass and ceramics, and also to dissolve rock samples, for example to extract chemicals or fossils from rocks.  It’s also used to clean stainless steel and, in more recent times, to prepare silicon wafers (used to make silicon chips) in the electronics industries.

The chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (him again – he just keeps turning up doesn’t he?) was the first person to produce HF in large quantities in 1771.  Scheele is particularly famous for his bad habit of sniffing and tasting any new substances he discovered.  Cumulative exposure to mercury, arsenic, lead, their compounds, hydrofluoric acid, and other substances took their toll on him and he died on 21 May 1786 at the age of just 43.  And that’s why your science teacher was endlessly telling you not to eat or drink in the laboratory.

So why is hydrogen fluoride so nasty?  For starters the gas is a severe poison that immediately and permanently damages the lungs and the corneas of the eyes – lovely. Hydrofluoric acid solution is a contact-poison that causes deep, initially painless burns which result in permanent tissue death. It also interferes with calcium metabolism, which means that exposure to it can and does cause cardiac arrest (heart attack) and death.  Contact with as little as 160 square centimeters (25 square inches) of skin can kill – that’s about the area of the palm of your hand.

And now for a gruesome and tragic tale: in 1995 a chemist working in Australia was sitting working at a fume cupboard and knocked over a small quantity (100-230 millilitres, about the equivalent of a drinking glass full of water) of hydrofluoric acid onto his lap, splashing both thighs.  He immediately washed his legs with water, jumped into a chlorinated swimming pool at the rear of the workplace, and stayed there for about 40 minutes before an ambulance arrived.  (Should you ever need to know, the proper treatment for HF exposure is calcium gluconate gel: calcium gluconate reacts very quickly with hydrofluoric acid to form non-toxic calcium fluoride, rendering it harmless.)  Sadly, his condition deteriorated in hospital and, despite having his right leg amputated 7 days after the accident, he died from multi-organ failure 15 days after hydrofluoric acid spill.  Remember, that was a spill the size of a glass of water.

Because hydrofluoric acid interferes with nerve function, burns from it often aren’t painful to begin with. Small accidental exposures can go unnoticed, which means that people don’t seek treatment straight away, making the whole thing worse.  Do a Google image search on ‘hydrogen fluoride burns’ and you’ll see some images that will really turn your stomach.

So which would you rather meet?  An alien with acid blood and a habit of laying eggs in your stomach or an invisible gas that destroys your tissues and leaves you, if not dead from multiple organ failure, then suffering with horribly disfiguring burns?  You might stand a better chance against the alien…


Comments have been turned off for this post. If you’re planning a DIY project, hydrofluoric acid is probably not your friend. Try Google and/or YouTube; there are almost certainly umpteen safer ways to do the thing you’re trying to do.


All content is © Kat Day 2017. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do.
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