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Guide to Purchasing Chemicals

Introduction

Knowing which chemical to buy and where to purchase it can be a confusing part of preparing for your science fair project. This guide will help you navigate some of those challenges.

Grades of Chemicals

Most, but not all, chemicals are labeled with a grade. The grade indicates how pure the chemical is. The greater the quantity of other chemicals, metals, water, or other impurities in the chemical, the lower the grade. There are many different grading standards, but the three you are most likely to encounter are: reagent grade, laboratory grade, and technical grade. Of these, reagent grade is the most pure and technical grade is the least pure. See the Chemistry Grade table for more details. Manufacturing pure chemicals can be time-consuming and expensive; for this reason, higher-grade chemicals cost more than lower-grade chemicals. For the purposes of most science fair projects, laboratory- or technical-grade chemicals are of sufficient purity. When in doubt, purchase laboratory-grade. If a Science Buddies project requires reagent-grade chemicals this will always be specifically stated in the Materials and Equipment section of the project. If you are ordering chemicals from an online distributor and do not know which grade to purchase, consult the customer-service representative or your chemistry teacher.

Chemistry Grade Alternative Name for Grade Purity Uses
Reagent ACS Highest purity available; meets or exceeds standards set by the American Chemical Society (ACS)
  • Works for all scientific and manufacturing needs
  • Often required for experiments involving living biological matter
Laboratory Lab Relatively high purity, but may contain small amounts of impurities
  • Sufficiently pure for most science fair projects
  • Not suitable for use in food or medicine of any kind
Technical Industrial Contains impurities
  • Used for commercial or industrial purposes
  • Can still be used for many science fair projects
  • Not suitable for use in food or medicine of any kind

Local Resources for Purchasing Common Chemicals

Some chemicals have common household uses either in beauty and hygiene, laundry and cleaning, building maintenance, or gardening. These chemicals can be bought from local stores rather than ordered from specialty companies. The Chemical Table lists a variety of common chemicals and what you need to know to purchase them locally. Unlike chemicals bought from chemical supply companies, when bought locally these common chemicals are unlikely to come with Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). For general information about handling chemicals, see the Chemical Safety Guide. For specific information about how to handle and dispose of these chemicals, consult the Chemistry Material Safety Data Sheet database maintained by Iowa State University.

Chemical Name Chemical Formula Common Name Where to Buy Notes Hazards
Acetic acid, ethanoic acid CH3COOH + H2O White vinegar Grocery store Contains approximately 5%-8% acetic acid in water  
Acetone, propanone CH3COCH3 Acetone and nail polish remover Hardware or drug store Acetone is commonly used as a paint thinner and can be bought at hardware stores. It is also the main ingredient in most nail polish removers, but check labels carefully because some nail polish removers include other chemicals. Flammable
Ammonium hydroxide NH4OH + H2O Household ammonia Grocery store Contains approximately 10% ammonium hydroxide in water Corrosive
Boric acid, boracic acid H3BO3 Boric acid Drug store    
Calcium carbonate CaCO3 Precipitated chalk (powder) Drug store    
Calcium chloride CaCl2 Road salt Hardware store Read the label to make sure it is pure calcium chloride; sometimes other chemicals are added to help melt snow.  
Calcium hydroxide Ca(OH)2 Slaked lime, garden lime, or hydrated lime Hardware store and garden center   Avoid breathing powder. Avoid eye contact.
Calcium oxide CaO Quicklime Builder's supply store   Corrosive
Calcium sulfate CaSO4 + H2O Plaster of Paris, or gypsum Hardware store    
Glucose C6H12O6 + H2O Solution of corn syrup Grocery store Most chemistry uses will call for a diluted solution of corn syrup and water, the exact ratio depends on the application.  
Hydrochloric acid HCl + H2O Muriatic acid Hardware or pool supply store Contains approximately 25% hydrochloric acid in water Toxic and corrosive
Magnesium sulfate MgSO4 + 7H2O Epsom salt Grocery or drug store    
Manganese dioxide MnO2 Pyrolusite Hardware store    
Naphthalene C10H8 Moth balls Hardware store    
Oxalic acid H2C2O4 + 2H2O Non-chlorine bleach powder cleanser Grocery or hardware store A commonly available brand is Bar Keepers Friend®  
Potassium nitrate KNO3 Saltpeter Garden center or hardware store   Oxidizing
Sodium bicarbonate NaHCO3 Baking soda Grocery store Do not substitute with baking powder; baking powder contains additional chemicals.  
Sodium chloride NaCl Table salt Grocery store Read the label carefully to make sure you are buying pure salt and not iodized salt.  
Sodium hydroxide NaOH Caustic soda or lye Grocery store A commonly available brand is Drano®. Caution: keep out of eyes, can cause blindness. Corrosive
Sodium tetraborate Na2B4O7 + 10H2O Borax Drug or grocery store A commonly available brand is 20 Mule Team® borax.  
Sucrose C12H22O11 Cane sugar Grocery store    
Zinc chloride ZnCl2 + H2O Tinner's fluid Hardware store   Corrosive

Corrosive chemicals can harm living tissue on contact. Diluted solutions of these chemicals may not be corrosive.

Oxidizing chemicals can cause other materials to combust more readily or make fires burn more fiercely. Always store oxidizers away from flammable or combustible materials, as well as sources of heat, flame, or sparks. Be sure to carefully examine the MSDS label, or a chemical database to determine which materials are incompatible.

Toxic chemicals can cause bodily harm if ingested, inhaled, or if they come in contact with your skin.

Purchasing Chemicals Online

If you need a chemical for your science fair project that cannot be bought locally (see table), you will need to purchase it from a chemical supply company. For more information about online distributors of chemicals see: Science Buddies Approved Supplier Program.

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