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At-Home Science Experiments: Color-Changing Milk

Some very unusual things happen when you mix a little milk, food coloring, and a drop of dish detergent. Use this experiment to amaze your friend
 

Learning Benefits

Hover over each Learning Benefit below for a detailed explanation.
Observation
Experimentation

What You'll Need:

  • Milk (whole or 2%)
  • Dinner plate
  • Food coloring (red, yellow, green, blue)
  • Dishwashing soap (Dawn brand works well)
  • Cotton swabs

What To Do:

1. Pour enough milk in the dinner plate to completely cover the bottom to the depth of about 1/4". Allow the milk to settle.

2. Add one drop of each of the four colors of food coloring — red, yellow, blue, and green — to the milk. Keep the drops close together in the center of the plate of milk.

3. Find a clean cotton swab for the next part of the experiment. Predict what will happen when you touch the tip of the cotton swab to the center of the milk. It's important not to stir the mix. Just touch it with the tip of the cotton swab. Go ahead and try it. Did anything happen?

4. Now place a drop of liquid dish soap on the other end of the cotton swab. Place the soapy end of the cotton swab back in the middle of the milk and hold it there for 10 to 15 seconds. Look at that burst of color! It's like the 4th of July in a bowl of milk!

5. Add another drop of soap to the tip of the cotton swab and try it again. Experiment with placing the cotton swab at different places in the milk. Notice that the colors in the milk continue to move even when the cotton swab is removed. What makes the food coloring in the milk move?

What's Happening:

Milk is mostly water, but it also contains vitamins, minerals, proteins, and tiny droplets of fat suspended in solution. Fats and proteins are sensitive to changes in the surrounding solution (the milk). The secret of the bursting colors is the chemistry of that tiny drop of soap. Dish soap, because of its bipolar characteristics (nonpolar on one end and polar on the other), weakens the chemical bonds that hold the proteins and fats in solution. The soap's polar, or hydrophilic (water-loving), end dissolves in water, and its hydrophobic (water-fearing) end attaches to a fat globule in the milk. This is when the fun begins.

The molecules of fat bend, roll, twist, and contort in all directions as the soap molecules race around to join up with the fat molecules. During all of this fat molecule gymnastics, the food coloring molecules are bumped and shoved everywhere, providing an easy way to observe all the invisible activity. As the soap becomes evenly mixed with the milk, the action slows down and eventually stops.

Try adding another drop of soap to see if there's any more movement. If so, you discovered there are still more fat molecules that haven't found a partner at the big color dance. Add another drop of soap to start the process again.

This activity and images are courtesy of Steve Spangler Science.

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