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Presto! From Black to Clear with the Magic of Photochemistry

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The rates of some chemical reactions can actually be increased by adding light. Light sometimes interacts with one or more of the chemicals and provides an "energy boost" that dramatically speeds up a normally slow reaction. In this photochemistry science project, you will experiment with the effect of light on a chemical reaction. The reaction converts iodine, which forms a dark-orange solution, to iodide, which is colorless!


Areas of Science
Time Required
Average (6-10 days)
An introductory chemistry class.
Material Availability
You will need basic lab equipment, which can be ordered online. See the Materials and Equipment list for details.
Average ($50 - $100)
Gloves and safety goggles are required. Oxalic acid is toxic and an irritant. Avoid breathing oxalic acid dust and avoid contact with skin. Ammonia is an irritant. Iodine is also an irritant and stains clothes and skin. Adult supervision is required.

David B. Whyte, PhD, Science Buddies

This science project is based on the following sources:

  • Woodrow Wilson Leadership Program in Chemistry. (n.d.). Photochemical Reaction: Ammonium Oxalate and Iodine.
  • Thompson, R.B. (2008). Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments. Sebastopol, O'Reilly, 2008. pp. 310–313.


  • Bar Keepers Friend® is a registered trademark of SerVaas Laboratories.


Demonstrate how the rate of a chemical reaction can be altered by light.


Some chemical reactions that are normally very slow can be dramatically sped up by adding energy from light. For example, a gaseous mixture of hydrogen and oxygen is stable at room temperature. Occasionally, a hydrogen molecule might collide with an oxygen molecule with enough energy for them to react, but this happens very rarely. The rate at which the molecules react might be measured in years, perhaps centuries. But if you shine an ultraviolet light on the mixture, oxygen and hydrogen molecules combine explosively to form water. The ultraviolet light in the aforementioned chemical reaction provided the activation energy required to stimulate the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen. In this photochemistry science project, you will study a different kind of light-stimulated chemical reaction. This reaction has an advantage—it actually occurs slowly enough for you to observe the changes caused by light, and it does not involve explosions!

Photochemical reactions are familiar to all of us. When your skin tans after exposure to sunlight, the tanning is the result of biological pathways that were stimulated by ultraviolet light. Your ability to see is the result of photochemical reactions that occur in the retina of your eye. And photosynthesis, where carbon dioxide is converted into starch, is completely dependent on sunlight. The reaction you will study involves the conversion of iodine to iodide in a solution of ammonium oxalate:

Equation 1:

2 (NH4)+ + C2O4- + I2 → 2 (NH4)+ + 2 I- + 2 CO2

This equation states that two ammonium ions react with an oxalate ion and an iodine molecule to form ammonium ions, iodide ions, and carbon dioxide. Oxalate ions are oxidized to carbon dioxide, and iodine molecules are reduced to iodide. Since the iodine is colored anywhere from orange to black, depending on its concentration, and the iodide ion is colorless, the color of the reaction mix changes as the reaction proceeds. The reaction shown in Equation 1 occurs at a much faster rate when the reactants are exposed to light. In this photochemistry science project, you will use household materials to experiment with the affect of light on a chemical reaction. In the experimental procedure, you will test how different light sources affect the rate at which the reaction occurs.

Terms and Concepts



Materials and Equipment

These items can be purchased from Carolina Biological Supply Company, a Science Buddies Approved Supplier: You will also need to gather these items:

Disclaimer: Science Buddies participates in affiliate programs with Home Science Tools, Amazon.com, Carolina Biological, and Jameco Electronics. Proceeds from the affiliate programs help support Science Buddies, a 501(c)(3) public charity, and keep our resources free for everyone. Our top priority is student learning. If you have any comments (positive or negative) related to purchases you've made for science projects from recommendations on our site, please let us know. Write to us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org.

Experimental Procedure

This procedure will require some creative problem-solving since the ingredients and the equipment may vary, depending on your experimental setup. Varying the sources and concentrations of the reactants will provide many opportunities for further experimentation.

Note from author: When I tested this procedure I found that the mixture of ammonia and iodine tincture, without the addition of oxalic acid, yielded a black-colored solution that was very sensitive to sunlight. As an option, try the procedure with and without oxalic acid.

Make a Set of Standards

  1. First you will make a set of standards by which to compare the color changes that occur in the test samples. Put on your safety goggles and a pair of disposable gloves. You should also wear clothing that you do not mind getting stained.
  2. Use masking tape and the permanent marker to label six centrifuge test tubes, as follows:
    1. 100%
    2. 50%
    3. 25%
    4. 12.5%
    5. 6%
    6. 0%
  3. Using the pipette, add 8 mL of distilled water to the tube labeled 100%.
  4. Add 4 mL distilled water to the remaining tubes.
  5. Add 20 drops of iodine into the tube labeled 100%.
    1. Caution: Iodine is an irritant and stains clothes and skin. Use caution when handling it.
  6. Cap the test tubes and mix the contents of the tube by turning it upside down several times.
  7. Use a clean pipet and the 10-mL graduated cylinder to transfer 4 mL from the 100% tube to the 50% tube.
  8. Mix the contents of the 50% tube thoroughly.
  9. Use a clean pipet to transfer 4 mL from the 50% tube to the 25% tube.
  10. Mix the contents of the 25% tube thoroughly.
  11. Use a clean pipet to transfer 4 mL from the 25% tube to the 12.5% tube.
  12. Mix the contents of the 12.5% tube thoroughly.
  13. Use a clean pipet to transfer 4 mL from the 12.5% tube to the 6% tube.
  14. Mix the contents of the 6% tube thoroughly.
  15. Do not add iodine to the tube labeled 0%.

Running the Experiment

  1. Prepare areas with the light sources that you plan to use so that they are ready when needed in the remainder of the procedure. For example, find a good spot outdoors that receives direct sunlight, or use incandescent light, fluorescent light, LED light, etc.
  2. Place a piece of weighing paper on the scale and weigh out 2.5 grams (g) of oxalic acid.
    1. Use ¾ teaspoon (tsp.) of oxalic acid if a scale is not available.
    2. Caution: Oxalic acid is toxic and an irritant. Avoid breathing oxalic acid dust and avoid contact with skin. Be sure to wear gloves while handling the oxalic acid.
  3. Transfer the oxalic acid to the 50-mL beaker and add 25 mL of water.
  4. When the crystals have dissolved, add 25 mL of clear ammonia.
    1. Caution: Ammonia is an irritant. Use caution when handling it.
  5. Stir with a clean plastic spoon to mix the solution of ammonium oxalate.
  6. Use masking tape and a permanent marker to label five new test tubes 1–5.
  7. Wrap the five new test tubes in aluminum foil. These will be the test solutions, which will be exposed to various kinds of light.
    1. These are wrapped at first to protect them from light until they are exposed later in the procedure.
  8. Add 3 ml of iodine, measured with the 10 ml graduated cylinder, to the ammonium oxalate solution and mix it thoroughly with the plastic spoon.
  9. Pour 4 mL of the iodine-ammonium-oxalate solution into each of the tubes labeled 1–5. Caution: Keep the lids of the tubes loose, as the reaction produces carbon dioxide gas.
  10. Keep tube #1 in foil and protected from light.
  11. Start the timer.
  12. Remove the foil wrappers from tubes 2–5.
  13. Place each of the four tubes in an area with a different light source. For instance:
    1. Tube #2: Sunlight
    2. Tube #3: Incandescent light
    3. Tube #4: Fluorescent light
    4. Tube #5: LED flashlight

Observing the Tubes

  1. Record the change in color of each tube at varying times, such as 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, and 4 hours.
    1. Compare the color of each tube to the standards to estimate how much of the color has been lost due to light exposure.
    2. Record your results in your lab notebook.
  2. Make a numerical scale from 1 to 6 for the color of the standard solutions. Use this scale to graph your results. Graph time on the x-axis and color on the y-axis.
  3. Pour the chemicals down the sink and rinse your materials and sink with water.
  4. Wash and dry the plastic tubes if you do not have clean, unused ones to use instead.
  5. Perform the entire procedure two more times. This shows that your results are repeatable.
icon scientific method

Ask an Expert

Do you have specific questions about your science project? Our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.


  • Vary the amounts of oxalic acid, ammonia and iodine. Record and explain your results.
  • Try filtering the light with various colored filters.
  • Try other light sources, such as open shade, a UV lamp, an infrared lamp, etc.


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General citation information is provided here. Be sure to check the formatting, including capitalization, for the method you are using and update your citation, as needed.

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Presto! From Black to Clear with the Magic of Photochemistry." Science Buddies, 20 Nov. 2020, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Chem_p095/chemistry/magic-of-photochemistry. Accessed 7 June 2023.

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2020, November 20). Presto! From Black to Clear with the Magic of Photochemistry. Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Chem_p095/chemistry/magic-of-photochemistry

Last edit date: 2020-11-20
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