LAST MINUTE LESSONS: “Super Cool” Science with Sodium Polyacrylate
by Laura Kane, Education Manager
Here at the South Carolina State Museum, one of our favorite winter activities uses a very simple powder called sodium polyacrylate. Known as a superabsorbent polymer, this chemical is commonly found in diapers (which is why we often do “diaper science” with it, too). Good diapers use a polymer that turns into a gel. This particular polymer puffs up a little too big to successfully be used in diapers. When it comes into contact with water it absorbs all of it very quickly and is really light and fluffy – just like snow! Unlike real snow, this won’t melt everywhere or turn into puddles. It is easy to use, easy to manipulate and can lead to some pretty fun “super cool” science experiments! Sodium polyacrylate is so similar to real snow that it is often sometimes called, “instant snow” or “super snow.”
All you have to do is add 1 tablespoon of sodium polyacrylate to 6 ounces of water and watch it expand! We like to add the water quickly so it self-mixes and really explodes! Some of our favorite experiments include:
Taking Temperature: Use a thermometer and compare the temperature of the sodium polyacrylate to regular tap water. You’ll find that the sodium polyacrylate is cooler – that’s because it’s constantly evaporating! It’s the same concept as being “cool as a cucumber.”
Add salt to your already made snow. What happens? It “melts!” Salt breaks down the polymer links and releases the water quickly.
Study Osmosis: Place several cups out with 1 tablespoon of sodium polyacrylate in each one. Have several cups of water (6oz) ready and dyed different colors with food coloring. Now mix them just like you normally would. Each batch of snow will become a different color! If you pour each color of snow in layers into a large vase and wait a week, you’ll see them start to blend and create color mixtures.
Freeze it – it’ll feel just like real snow and you can make snowmen out of it!
Cut into some diapers to retrieve the sodium polyacrylate powder and study different brands and how absorbent each one is.
Instant Snow can be found at many online retailers and stores all year round for just a few bucks. One small 3.5oz jar mixed with ½ gallon of water will yield 2 gallons of snow! That’s a lot of science!
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