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Chemistry Rocket: Acid-Base Reaction

Blast-off with this new spin on the classic baking soda and vinegar experiment

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When you think of baking soda and vinegar, you probably think of two things: homemade volcano models or that gross thing Aunt Muriel calls “dinner.” Don't let these lackluster and disgusting experiences put you off to the true potential of this classic acid and base reaction. With the Chemistry Rocket experiment, you'll see just how explosive and exciting the combination of baking soda and vinegar can be when it's in the right setting.

Materials
  • 16 oz bottle
  • Rubber stopper (needs to fit in opening of bottle)
  • Tablespoon
  • Baking soda
  • Strong tape
  • Scissors
  • Three unused pencils
  • Funnel
  • White vinegar
  • Paper towel

Videos

  • Chemistry Rocket - Sick Science! #085
Print Experiment

Experiment

  1. Using the scissors, (you've got to protect those pearly whites) cut a 12" piece of strong tape. Duct tape is going to work the best, but you can substitute electrical or masking tape.
  2. Use the tape that you just cut to fix the three pencils to the outside of a 16 oz bottle. Try to keep the pencils as equidistant from each other as possible. Your Chemistry Rocket needs to have a steady launch platform.
  3. Use a funnel to fill the 16 oz bottle halffull (or half-empty if your a pessimist) with white vinegar.
  4. Take a single paper towel from a roll. The paper towel you have is probably comprised of multiple layers, so separate the paper towel until it is down to a single layer.
  5. Tear off about 1/4 of the paper towel and put one tablespoon of baking soda on the piece of paper towel.
  6. Wrap the baking soda in the piece of paper towel. Make sure that the paper towel can fit into the opening of the 16 oz bottle.

    Now you're about to get a little (read: a lot) messy. You're going to want to take this experiment outside for the rest of the steps. Trust us. Your parents and teachers will appreciate the thoughtfulness.
     
  7. This step has to happen quickly, or what you'll have is a failure to launch. Put the paper towel-wrapped baking soda inside the bottle and immediately put the rubber stopper into the opening of the bottle. Give the rocket a quick, hard shake and set it upright on the pencils. Stand back!
  8. You didn't really have time for a countdown, did you? You can do it now if you want… or you can just yell, "Awesome!" and do the experiment again.

How Does It Work?

What do you see when you mix baking soda with vinegar? You see a lot of bubbling. The bubbles that you see are actually bubbles of carbon dioxide gas being released through an acid and base reaction. Vinegar contains acetic acid (the reason it tastes so sour), and baking soda contains sodium bicarbonate (a base). Their reaction makes carbonic acid, an unstable acid that quickly breaks down into carbon dioxide and water. The carbon dioxide then rapidly bubbles out of the water. 
 
When you close the 16 oz bottle with the rubber stopper, you prevent thegases from escaping the bottle, but you are increasing the amount of gases inside the bottle by creating carbon dioxide. The introduction of carbon dioxide inside the bottle causes a rapid increase in air pressure inside the bottle. The air pressure eventually gets to the point that the rubber stopper can no longer contain the gases it holds inside the bottle and… WHOOOOOOSH!... the stopper and the contents of the bottle rush downward.
 
As the contents of the bottle rush downward, the bottle itself shoots upward. How does that happen? This is a fundamental demonstration of Newton's Third Law of Motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The initial action is the rush of matter and force downward from the bottle's opening. The reaction is the bottle jettisoning upward.

Take It Further!

Try experimenting with different amounts of baking soda and vinegar. If you want a bigger launch, you've got to figure out the best combination of baking soda and vinegar to produce the most explosive reaction.

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