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Sorting Things Out with Paper Chromatography

Chromatography example in green and yellow

In the above image, the green color in a plant leaf has been separated into its various pigments using thin layer chromatography. You can see the bands of separate pigments, further distinguished by the change in color. Source: Wikipedia

On our Facebook page, we've been tracking important dates in science history, including the birth dates of notable scientists, researchers, engineers, and mathematicians. If you're not already a member of our Facebook community, stop by and click "Like" to see our updates!

On this day in 1910, Archer Martin was born. Martin was a biochemist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1952 for his work, with R. L. M. Synge, on paper partition chromatography.

What is chromatography? Chromatography is simply a technique used to separate a mixture into its different component parts, based on the chemical properties of each component. Various types of chromatography are used in many areas of science. Police and forensics investigators, for example, might use chromatography to help evaluate stains, spots, or fluids found at the scene of a crime. Food companies, on the other hand, may use advanced chromatography to ensure food products being made contain the right balance of ingredients. But it is also simple enough to do at home.

Note: Visit Paper Chromatography Science Projects & Experiments for our updated Paper Chromatography resource.

Try It Out!

There are a number of chromatography projects on the Science Buddies website. You can get started exploring this important chemistry process by testing some common indoor and outdoor materials and supplies.

  • Paper Chromatography: Is Black Ink Really Black?: Using paper chromatography, you can analyze the ink in permanent black markers, letting you see the differences in their composition. Not all inks are created the same! (Have you ever noticed in the school supplies section that inks come with a wide range of labeling. Some are waterproof, some are water-resistant, some are light-resistant, and some are touted as being fraud-proof. What's the difference?) (Difficulty: 4-5)
  • Explore How Chromatography Can Unmix Mixtures: Again working with inks and markers, you can compare different chromatography substrates and solvents to see which ones are most effective in separating different kinds of inks. (Difficulty: 5-6)
  • Discover Chlorophyll Variety in Different Plants Using Paper Chromatography: Using paper or thin-layer chromatography, you can analyze the leaf pigments found in three different types of green plants. This experiment takes a new look at spinach! (Difficulty: 5-6)
  • Candy Chromatography: What Makes Those Colors?: Paper chromatography can help you determine what dyes were used in the coatings of popular brightly colored candies! You'll want to keep a few aside for snacking! (Difficulty: 5-6)
  • Reveal the Red: Exploring the Chemistry of Red Flower Pigments: In this project, paper chromatography is used to analyze the pigments in red flower petals, and to determine if different red flowers use the same or different pigments. (What about other red objects in nature?) (Difficulty: 6)


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