Key Concepts
Chemical weathering, physical weathering, chemical reaction
Sugar cube broken down into pieces through chemical and physical weathering

Introduction

Weathering, or the wearing away of rock by exposure to the elements, not only creates perfectly smooth boulders, sinkholes to swim in, and caves to explore; it also eats away statues and buildings. Try it out on a sugar cube and feel how destructive weathering can be.

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.

Background

Rock is always being formed and broken down. We usually do not notice it because the process happens slowly over millions of years.

Rock forms by cooling magma, the hot fluid that flows out of volcanos. Obsidian and granite are examples of rock formed by cooling magma. Layers of debris compressing together is another way rock forms. Limestone and chalk are formed this way. They are made from compacted layers of shells and marine animal skeletons.  Rock can also transform. This mainly happens when the rock is buried and thus exposed to extreme temperatures and pressures.

Rock is also constantly broken down in nature. This is called weathering. Scientists categorize the processes that break down rock in two groups: physical and chemical weathering. Physical (also called mechanical) weathering happens when forces (pushes and pulls) repeatedly act on the rock. An example is wind repetitively gliding against a rock taking rock particles with it. Over many years this makes the rock look and feel smooth. Moving water can have the same effect. Waves that bang against a rock or smash rocks together are other examples of physical weathering, so is freezing water that pushes a crack open as it expands.

In chemical weathering, the rock disintegrates or even dissolves because a chemical reaction changed the composition of the rock. Rusting is an example. If iron in rock comes in contact with oxygen in the atmosphere, a chemical reaction called rusting occurs. The result is rusted iron, a substance that has a weaker structure and thus breaks down more easily.  You can recognize it by its typical orange-red-brown color.

Some rock even dissolves as the result of chemical weathering. When certain types of rock like chalk or limestone come in contact with rainwater – which is usually slightly acidic – a chemical reaction occurs, slowly transforming the rock into substances that dissolve in water. As the products dissolve, they are washed away with the groundwater. It is like the rock vanished! This process even happens underground where it creates sinkholes (also called cenotes) or caves.

The reason rain and stormwater is little acidic is because it collects impurities like carbon dioxide(CO2) from the atmosphere as it falls.  Pollution increases the amount of CO2 and other impurities in the atmosphere also increase, making rainwater more acidic than it naturally would be.  The more acidic the water is, the faster these types of rock dissolve. It isn’t just rock out in nature that are impacted though, statues and buildings made with rock that react with acidic water suffer too.

In this activity, you will model physical and chemical weathering on a sugar cube.  Will your sugar sculpture survive rain?

Materials

  • A few sugar cubes
  • Water
  • Dark colored paper or countertop
  • Glass
  • Dropper
  • Work area that can get wet
  • Clay (optional)
  • Spray bottle (optional)
  • Nail file (optional)
  • Baking plate (optional)

Procedure

  1. The sugar cube is your rock. Can you name a few ways you can break or pulverize your rock (sugar cube)?
  2. Try it out!
  3. Did you crush it, smash it or apply another force on it? In nature, this way of breaking down rock is called physical weathering. Waves might smash rocks against each other. Can you list other examples of how rocks get smashed or crushed in nature?  
  4. Take two new sugar cubes and grind one against the other over a dark colored piece of paper or countertop. What happens?
  5. Do you see sugar dust on the paper or countertop? Does this mean your rock (sugar cube) is breaking down?
  6. Try rounding the edges of your rock (sugar cube) this way. Does it work?  
  7. In nature, rocks are smoothened in a similar way but at a much slower rate. What do you think might pass by a huge rock repeatedly, each time taking away a few small pieces and slowly smoothen it or grind it away?  What could it be if the rock is part of a riverbed?  
  8. Look back at what is left of your sugar cube. It is a little smaller, but is it still sugar? Have a taste if you are in doubt.
  9. Let’s get our hands wet and see what rain does to our rock (sugar cube). What do you think would happen if you leave your sugar cube out in the rain?
  10. Place the sugar cube in a glass. With a dropper, let a few drops of water (modeling rain) fall on the sugar cube. Look and feel to observe what happens.
  11. What do you think will happen if you drop more water on the sugar?
  12. What Do you think will happen if you drop 100, 1000, 10000, ...  drops on the sugar cube? Will it still be a sugar cube? Will it still be sugar?
  13. Try it out. You will probably notice the sugar cube decreases in size or falls apart. Where does the sugar go? Can you make it disappear completely?
  14. This happens in nature too. It is called chemical weathering because in nature, the rock dissolves only after a chemical reaction has taken place. Do you think all rock dissolves slowly in rain, or would this only happen to some specific types of rock?
Extra: Place a few sugar cubes in a glass. Cover with clay. The sugar cubes represent a layer of rock, the clay represents topsoil. Make a few holes or a crack in the clay so rainwater can seep into the ground and reach the layer of rock. Spray water over your glass, representing rain coming down over your piece of land. What do you think will happen to your layer of rock? Might caves or sinkholes form?
Extra: Make a sugar-cube sculpture. To glue cubes together, wet one side of the cube and press it against another cube. If you need stronger glue, frosting can do the trick. Make sure your sculpture has some details and sharp edges. A nail file can help you sculpt the cube. What do you think will happen to your sculpture when it is exposed to rain? Place your sculpture on a baking plate and use a spray bottle to let it rain over your sculpture. First a little, then more. What happens? Look carefully at the details and edges, do they change? What will happen eventually, after a lot of rain? This is exactly what acidic rain does to some manmade statues and buildings, only at a much slower rate.

Observations and Results

Was breaking a sugar cube by smashing, crushing or grinding it easy?  Rock breaks down in a similar way but a lot slower.  Forces in nature like wind, flowing water, expansion and contraction due to temperature changes, or the push of plant roots making their way in cracks push and pull on rocks. These forces wear the rock down. Eventually, it breaks or pulverizes. The result is smaller pieces of rock, just like you were left with smaller pieces of sugar. Scientists call this type of weathering physical weathering.

Did the sugar cube become weak and eventually dissolve in the drops of water? That happens to some types of rock too. Some minerals in rock react with rain or the gasses in the atmosphere, changing the nature of the rock. The new substance is often weaker, and sometimes even dissolves in water. Scientists call this type of weathering chemical weathering.

Your sugar cube dissolved in water too, and, after you applied enough water, you probably did not have any sugar cube left, it was all carried away with the water. In a similar way, rocks can dissolve in rain or stormwater and be carried away with the groundwater. Caves and sinkholes form this way.

If you tried to build a sugar statue and exposed it to water, you probably saw it slowly disappear. Some statues and buildings undergo the same fate.

More to Explore

Holey porous Rick Science, from Science Buddies

How Dirt Cleans Water, From Scientific American

Acid Rain, from Kids Ecology Corps

Science Activities for All Ages!, from Science Buddies

Credits

Sabine De Brabandere, PhD, Science Buddies

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Key Concepts
Chemical weathering, physical weathering, chemical reaction
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