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High School Organic Chemistry Lab Experiments

by Kevin McLeod

Organic chemistry, one of five branches of chemistry, focuses on carbon-based chemical activity. Because all life requires carbon, organic chemistry and biochemistry are closely related. High school organic chemistry lab work begins with a review of lab safety, followed by practice performing basic lab techniques. These techniques are used to teach important concepts and principles of organic chemistry.

Safety

The basic equipment used to enhance lab safety includes rubber gloves, eye goggles, lab coats, fire extinguishers, fire blankets for smothering fires, first aid kit, eyewash station and safety shower. Some labs also include a fume hood for drawing off hazardous gases. The most common lab hazard is broken glassware, so a broom and dustpan is important. Labs work with toxins, reactive chemicals, heat, pressure, electrical equipment and hazardous wastes, so entering the lab with a mindset that puts safety first is vital. However, when basic common-sense rules are followed, lab work is relatively safe.

Equipment

The iconic glassware, stoppers, hoses, clamps and ring stands that appear in popular depictions of labs are certainly present, as are reagents, hot plates, alcohol stoves and heat guns. Some of the glassware is specialized: distillation condensers and heads, vacuum adapters, separatory columns and thermometer adapters. These are used to purify through distillation, recrystallization and chromatography, filter, extract, synthesize, melt and mix various compounds to isolate components or generate reactions. Variable controllers are used to direct energy to heating mantles. Spectrophotometers are used to measure the absorption of light wavelengths. A melting point apparatus is used for measuring melting points in solids and boiling points for liquids.

Skills and Knowledge

Organic chemistry requires an understanding of the bonds that form between elements on the atomic level, how they link up to form molecules, how molecules bond to form compounds, what properties these compounds have and how they can be manipulated. Specific skills to be learned include how to isolate and purify chemicals through distillation and/or extraction and how to analyze the properties of an unknown substance using combustion, chemical instrumentation, infrared spectroscopy, mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic spectroscopy. At a high school labs, these skills will be acquired at the beginning levels.

Lab Experiments

Some examples of organic chemistry experiments conducted in a high school lab include melting point measurements, extractions, purifications and distillations. Melting points measurements are simple -- safely heat a compound to determine when it melts. Obvious, yes, but it serves several purposes; demonstrate a technique that measures a compound's properties, observe the phase change from solid to liquid, and record the result accurately. Extraction is a daily event for households with coffeemakers. Water is passed through ground coffee beans to extract the best balance of solubles for preferred flavor. A popular high school lab is extracting DNA, which can also be done in any kitchen. Another easy extraction is removing iron from iron-enhanced breakfast cereals. Purification involves cleansing a solution of contaminants. A common example is the purification of water, which can be contaminated by metals, organic molecules and bactera. UCLA's High School Nanoscience Program has a detailed lab on preparation, filtration and purification of water. Distilation involves boiling a solution, then condensing the vapor. A common and useful example is distillation of seawater into fresh water. Another popular lab is the distillation of Cherry Coke into carbon dioxide, food flavorings and distilled water.

About the Author

Kevin McLeod has written about culture, technology, social change, employment and the deaf community since 1985. He has worked with high school students, psychiatric patients and editors, all fine sources of chaos and drama.

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