Sulfuric Acid and Sugar Black Snakes

One of the most spectacular chemistry demonstrations is also one of the simplest. It’s the dehydration of sugar (sucrose) with sulfuric acid. Basically, all you do to perform this demonstration is put ordinary table sugar in a glass beaker and stir in some concentrated sulfuric acid (you can dampen the sugar with a small volume of water before adding the sulfuric acid). The sulfuric acid removes water from the sugar in a highly exothermic reaction, releasing heat, steam, and sulfur oxide fumes. Aside from the sulfurous odor, the reaction smells a lot like caramel. The white sugar turns into a black carbonized tube that pushes itself out of the beaker. Here’s a nice youtube video for you, if you’d like to see what to expect.


Here's a photo of some guy performing the experiment. This is what the end product looks like.

Here’s a photo of some guy performing the experiment. This is what the end product should look like.

Sugar is a carbohydrate, so when you remove the water from the molecule, you’re basically left with elemental carbon. The dehydration reaction is a type of elimination reaction.

C12H22O11 (sugar) + H2SO4 (sulfuric acid) → 12 C (carbon) + 11 H2O (water) +mixture water and acid

Although the sugar is dehydrated, the water isn’t ‘lost’ in the reaction. Some of it remains as a   liquid in the acid. Since the reaction is exothermic, much of the water is boiled off as steam.

Safety Precautions:

If you do this demonstration, use proper safety precautions. Whenever you deal with concentrated sulfuric acid, you should wear gloves, eye protection, and a lab coat.

Oh, and by the way, consider the beaker a loss, since scraping burnt sugar and carbon off of it isn’t an easy task. Also it’s preferable to perform the demonstration outside or under a fume hood.


Posted on May 8, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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