You use it basically every day and cannot survive without it—no it is not your cell phone, but water! It is one of the most essential compounds of the world and has become an increasingly important issue everywhere. You probably have heard that in many places droughts or water pollution limits clean drinking water supplies, and those supplies keep shrinking. When considering this, have you ever wondered why we do not just make our own water, and what water is actually made of? In this science activity, you will use energy in the form of electricity to split water into its individual components, so gather all the materials and get ready to find out what they are!
This activity is not appropriate for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.
To find out what water is made of, it helps to look at its chemical formula, which is H2O. This basically tells us that the water molecule is composed of two components: hydrogen (H2), and oxygen (O2), or more precisely, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Hydrogen and oxygen are gases at room temperature; so, does this mean that we can just simply combine both gases and then we get water? It is not as simple as that. What is missing in the equation is the energy component of the chemical reaction. Making water from its elements produces a huge amount of energy. Chemical reactions that produce energy are also called exothermic reactions. In the case of hydrogen and oxygen, the released energy is so high that it is almost impossible to control, and most of the time, leads to an explosion. Luckily, this reaction does not occur spontaneously and only happens when you ignite the gas mixture with a lighter.
If making water from its element is so dangerous, what about the reverse reaction? Splitting water into its two components is much easier to do and is called water electrolysis. Making hydrogen or oxygen this way seems simple, but as you probably suspected, this reverse reaction needs an input of energy, which is why it is also called an endothermic reaction. In water electrolysis, the source of energy used for the reaction to occur is electricity. An easy way to generate electricity is with a battery. However, because pure water is not good at conducting electricity, electrolysis requires the addition of an electrolyte, such as salt or acid. The electrolyte dissolves in water and separates into ions that move through the solutions and are able to conduct electricity this way. To add electricity to the solution, you also need two electrical conductors that make contact with the water. These are called electrodes and are mostly metals or other conductive materials. When the battery voltage is applied to the electrodes, the ions in the electrolyte—including the positively charged protons (H+) and negatively charged hydroxyl ions (OH-) that result from the self-ionization of water—start moving toward the electrodes (depending on their charge) and there, hydrogen and oxygen are produced. You can see this for yourself in this activity and even capture both gases!
Extra: If you have any pH strips that can measure the acidity or basicity of solutions, use them to measure the pH in each of the jumbo straws once the water level decreases by about 50 percent. Carefully remove the jumbo straws from the electrodes and immediately seal each one with a finger once you lift it of the electrodes. Making sure you do not lose the water that is inside, and dip a pH test strip inside. What color does the test strip show and what pH does this represent? Is there a difference between the solutions in the two straws? How do they differ and why do you think this is the case?
Extra: Repeat the experiment, but instead of adding baking soda to the distilled water, add a teaspoon of table salt (sodium chloride or NaCl) and let the electrolysis run for 5 minutes. Do the electrode reactions change? What about the smell of the reaction products, can you make out a certain smell this time? Why do you think this is?
Extra: Exchange the graphite electrodes with metal thumbtacks. You might need to use a fresh cup for this. Push the thumbtacks into the bottom of the cup so that they do not touch each other, but each one of them touches one of the 9V battery poles once you place the cup on top of the battery. With the thumbtacks no glue seal is needed. Repeat the original procedure, but this time add one teaspoon of table salt to the distilled water. Observe the electrode reactions. What happens this time? Look closely at the pin that is connected to the positive battery pole. Can you see other reaction products besides gas? What do you think happened? How do the metal thumbtacks look after you take them out again?
Observations and Results
Were you able to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen gas, and did you see a lot of bubbles being produced at both of the graphite pins? Initially, when you put the cup with distilled water on top of the battery, you probably did not see much happening at the graphite electrodes. This is because distilled water does not conduct electricity very well and therefore, no or only minor electrode reactions are possible. However, if you add electrolytes, such as baking soda, the added ions can conduct electricity and you should have seen gas bubbles emerging at both of the graphite pins. On one side, at the positive pole, oxygen develops, whereas at the negative pole, hydrogen is produced.
When you looked closely, you might have observed that on the graphite electrode connected to the negative pole of the battery, more gas was formed than on the other side. Collecting the two gases with the jumbo straws probably demonstrated this even better. After 10 minutes, the water level at the negative pole should have been about half that of the positive side, meaning that you collected about double the amount of hydrogen gas compared to oxygen. The difference is due to the fact that one water molecule has two hydrogen atoms compared to one oxygen atom, as explained above. This means that it takes two water molecules (2 H2O) to make one oxygen molecule (O2). At the same time, however, two molecules of water (2 H2O) can make two molecules of hydrogen (2 H2). While hydrogen and oxygen are formed at the electrodes, the leftover reaction products from water are protons (H + on the side of oxygen) and hydroxyl ions (OH- on the side of hydrogen). You can visualize this by putting a pH strip into the solutions in the jumbo straws above each electrode. The solution in the straw that was put on top of the negative battery pole electrode should show a basic pH (>7), whereas the other one should be acidic (pH<7).
Other electrode reactions can happen, too, if there are ions in the solution that compete with the hydrogen or oxygen production. You might have observed once you added salt (or sodium chloride, NaCl) to your electrolyte, that it started smelling like at a swimming pool. Instead of oxygen, chlorine is produced at the positive battery pole, which is also used for disinfection of swimming pool water. If you used metal thumbtacks as electrodes instead of graphite pins, the metal (usually steel or brass) of the thumbtack will dissolve, or corrode, at the positive battery pole and instead (or in addition) of gas production, you should see that the metal thumbtack turns reddish brown. This demonstrates that electrolysis is not only a technique for splitting water into its components, but can also drive other reactions that otherwise would not occur spontaneously.
Clean up any water spills with a towel. Pour the water with the electrolyte (baking soda or salt) into the drain. Remove the electrodes (graphite pins or metal thumbtacks) from the cups and put them into the trash. Throw both plastic cups and the sealed jumbo straws into the trash. You can reuse the 9V battery.
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Svenja Lohner, PhD, Science Buddies
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