It was Halloween yesterday and, unusually for the UK, it fell in school term time. As it turned out, I was teaching chemistry to a group of 12-13 year olds on that day which was too good an opportunity to miss.
Time for the puking pumpkin!
A side note: there’s loads of great chemistry here, and the pumpkin isn’t essential – you could easily do this same experiment during a less pumpkin-prolific month with something else. Puking watermelon, anyone?
First things first, prepare your pumpkin! Choose a large one – you need room to put a conical flask inside and put the pumpkin’s “lid” securely back in place.
Carve the mouth in the any shape you like, but make it generous. Draw the eyes and nose (and any other decoration) in waterproof marker – unless you want your pumpkin to “puke” out of its nose and eyes as well!
Rest the pumpkin on something wipe-clean (it might leak from the bottom) and put a deep tray in front of it.
To make the “puke” you will need:
- 35% hydrogen peroxide (corrosive)
- a stock solution of KI, potassium iodide (low hazard)
- washing up liquid
You can also add food colouring or dye, but be aware that the reaction can completely change or even destroy the colours you started with. If colour matters to you, test it first.
- Place about 50 ml (use more if it’s not so fresh) of the hydrogen peroxide into the conical flask, add a few drops of washing up liquid (and dye, if you’re using it).
- Add some KI solution and quickly put the pumpkin’s lid back in place.
- Enjoy the show!
Check out some video of all this here.
What’s happening? Hydrogen peroxide readily decomposes into oxygen and water, but at room temperature this reaction is slow. KI catalyses the reaction, i.e. speeds it up. (There are other catalysts you could also try if you want to experiment; potassium permanganate for example.) The washing up liquid traps the oxygen gas in foam to produce the “puke”.
The word and symbol equations are:
hydrogen peroxide –> water + oxygen
2H2O2 –> 2H2O + O2
There are several teaching points here:
- Evidence for chemical change.
- Compounds vs. elements.
- Breaking the chemical bonds in a compound to form an element and another compound.
- Balanced equations / conservation of mass.
- The idea that when it comes to chemical processes, it’s not just whether a reaction happens that matters, but also how fast it happens…
- … which of course leads to catalysis. A-level students can look at the relevant equations (see below).
Some health and safety points: the hydrogen peroxide is corrosive so avoid skin contact. Safety goggles are essential, gloves are a Good Idea(™). The reaction is exothermic and steam is produced. A heavy pumpkin lid will almost certainly stay in place but still, stand well back.
But we’re not done, oh no! What you have at the end of this reaction is essentially a pumpkin full of oxygen gas. Time to crack out the splints and demonstrate/remind your students of the test for oxygen. It’s endlessly fun to put a glowing splint into the pumpkin’s mouth and watch it catch fire, and you’ll be able to do it several times.
And we’re still not done! Once the pumpkin has completely finished “puking”, open it up (carefully) and look inside. Check out that colour! Why is it bluish-black in there?
It turns out that you also get some iodine produced, and there’s starch in pumpkins. It’s the classic, blue-black starch complex.
Finally, give the outside of the pumpkin a good wipe, take it home, carve out the eyes and nose and pop it outside for the trick or treaters – it’s completely safe to use.
Brace yourselves, more equations coming…
The KI catalyses the reaction because the iodide ions provide an alternative, lower-energy pathway for the decomposition reaction. The iodide reacts with the hydrogen peroxide to form hypoiodite ions (OI–). These react with more hydrogen peroxide to form water, oxygen and more iodide ions – so the iodide is regenerated, and hence is acting as a catalyst.
H2O2 + I– –> H2O + OI–
H2O2 + OI– –> H2O + O2 + I–
The iodine I mentioned comes about because some of the iodide is oxidised to iodine by the oxygen. At this point we have both iodine and iodide ions – these combine to form triiodide, and this forms the familiar blue-black complex.
Phew. That’s enough tricky chemistry for one year. Enjoy your chocolate!
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