HOW TO: Christmas Chemistry Creations


December 3, 2008
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This holiday season, we’re bringing you a series of fun science projects you can do at home – all with a holiday theme. In the first part in the series, Kat teaches us how to make the holidays sparkle!

Use this wonderful chemistry concoction to “grow” your own amazing Christmas decorations!

Things you will need:
20 Mule Team Borax – available at the grocery store with the laundry detergents
Pipe cleaners (also known as craft stems)
Wide mouthed Mason jar
String
Pencil
Parental Guidance
 

How to do it:
Shape the pipe cleaners into various shapes such as simple star shapes, circles, diamonds, angels, or whatever shape you wish.  Make sure the ornament shape fits easily inside your mason jar.
 
Tie a piece of string to your ornament and the other end of the string to the pencil. 
 
Fill your jar (with parental guidance of course!) with boiling water.
 
Add borax to the jar a tablespoon at a time.  Stir until it is dissolved before adding another tablespoon.  The formula that works best is 3 tablespoons of borax to each cup of water used.  Don’t worry if some un-dissolved borax is at the bottom of the jar.
 
Hang your pipe cleaner creation in the jar with the pencil across the top of the jar to suspend it.  The pipe cleaner should be fully immersed in the solution and hang freely without touching the bottom of the jar. 
 

Find a safe spot for your jar and leave it alone overnight.

The next morning you will have a beautiful crystal creation that you made yourself!

What’s going on here?
When you add borax to the hot water and stir you are creating a saturated solution.  What does this mean?  Well, it means that the water can hold no more borax (this is obvious when there is un-dissolved borax at the bottom of the jar).  Hotter water can dissolve more solute (in this case borax) than colder water can. When our saturated borax solution begins to cool, it can no longer hold as much borax as it could while hot (it is temporarily a supersaturated solution).  This “extra” borax attaches itself to the pipe cleaners in the form of crystals.

Kat
Authored By Kat Havens

Kat has been both the spokesperson for the CSI: The Experience exhibit and project manager for the Imperial Rome exhibit and has a love of all things historical and cultural. She is responsible for the Xplorations summer camp program, coordinating weekday labs during the school year, writing department curriculum and presenting at teacher trainings. Kat has worked at the Museum since 1996.

18 responses to “HOW TO: Christmas Chemistry Creations”

  1. Laurie says:

    WOW, how awesome is this!!! I can’t wait to make some!

  2. kathleen havens says:

    I made them at home with my daughter and she loved it!

  3. yi says:

    this sounds great, but can i use Natron instead of borax?
    i cant find borax here in europe.

    greetings

  4. Carolyn L. (HMNS) says:

    To the Natron response:
    I just want to clarify what substance we’re talking about; I think you are probably referring to a product like the one pictured at
    http://www.purenature24.com/shop/pdpictures.html?pop=true&pdid=246
    This is sodium bicarbonate (often called baking soda in the US). Sodium bicarbonate might make less impressive crystals than borax, but http://chemistry.about.com/od/crystalrecipes/a/sodacrystals.htm has a procedure for making sodium bicarbonate crystals to model stalactites and stalagmites.

    Many people associate the word natron with the combination of materials used by ancient Egyptian during the process of mummification. Some modern blends of similar substances are still sold as cleaning products, like the one at http://www.etsy.com/view_listing.php?listing_id=32654263&ref=cat2_gallery_19

    Using a saturated sugar solution, salt solution (table salt or kosher salt), or Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) solution should make good crystals too, and is probably easier and cheaper than locating borax (sodium tetraborate) at a specialty store or online.

    Good luck with your crystals!

  5. Dani says:

    Will they all be pink like the butterfly pictured above? How do you alter the colors? Can’t wait to make them.
    Thanks

  6. Mrs. Allison Chapman says:

    We were also wondering how the butterfly turned out pink? We are trying to make some ornaments right now. Was it a pink or red pipe cleaner that make the crystals pink?

  7. Nicole says:

    Actually it is the color of the pipe cleaner that changes the color of the crystal. Since you are veiwing the color through the crystals, it has a tendancy to be a bit softer than the actual pipe cleaner color. So red takes on a rosey hue but wont be the vibrant red associated with Santa, for example.

    Have fun!
    Nicole
    HMNS Education

  8. julie says:

    My daughter and I have made several of these and most recently did it with a group of kids in a Bahai children’s class and they loved it too. We are enjoying this so much!!!! Thank you.

  9. This was an entertaining read, I’m forever on the watch for good articles and blog ideas so thanks. I’ve bookmarked this article so I’ll stay in touch!

  10. Rebecca says:

    I suppose color could also be added to the borax solution itself by adding food dye. I think I’ll try this with sugar crystals, so they’re edible.

  11. Kathleen HAvens says:

    Hello:

    If you are only working with sugar it would be edible, but I would emphasize with the children how eating in a lab situation is usually not done for safety reasons. Maybe if you frame it as a candy making lab that would be better. Just my thoughts :). Have fun!

  12. Syl says:

    I am a teacher of 3&4 y/o. This is a great activity can be used for xmas ornament and a science activity. Thanks you’re Great!

  13. Angela says:

    is the container reusable after you make it in it?? just wondered before i put in in something i do want to reuse.
    thanks

  14. Jeff says:

    Hi.
    I love this idea. I want to do it with my class. Can you tell me if it’s going to be a problem to supersaturate a whole dish tub of water and mass produce these? I don’t see why it would, but just wondering. I’m also wondering if this is a chemical or physical change? Anyone know?
    thx

  15. Sarah T. says:

    Our ornaments this morning did not have as many crystals as your picture. Is this because we did not use as much borax as we should have or should we just keep them in there longer?

  16. erica says:

    im trying this tonight! to get the color, you have to use liquid food coloring in the borax water!

  17. Kat Havens says:

    I would use a container that you are not too attached to, it is easier that way. You can use any size of container as long as the water is super saturated. You will not get good crystal growth unless the water has so much borax that it will not “accept” any more. I know I’ve gotten to this point when I have borax powder left at the bottom that will not dissolve.

  18. jm says:

    Jeff: smaller batches are likely quicker but as long as the ratio of salt:water remains high it should work. Crystallization is a physical change from a dissolved salt in solution to a crystal solid. The salt isn’t reacting during this process.

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