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Rusty nail experiment

You will need:

  • 6 test tubes or plastic cups
  • 6 steel nails (avoid galvanised ones)
  • Coke
  • Water
  • Lemon Juice
  • Vinegar
  • Cooking oil

    nails standing upright

    You could also try salt water, detergent or any other benign chemicals that you can safely leave unattended. If you can secure the area safely and you have adult supervision you can also try bleach or stronger acids too.

rust nail science experiment
Rusty nail science experiment


  1. Set up the 6 test tubes or cups as shown in the picture above. This experiment is very much about variable testing!
  2. Take a photo and write down your observations of each nail at the start of the experiment. This is also a good time to enter this into your own classroom blog!

    Optional: weigh each nail with an accurate scale at the start and the end of the experiment.
  3. Over the coming days take recording of each nail's condition.

    - Which nail showed rust first?
    - If you were able to weigh each nail at the end of the experiment, was there any difference between the nails? Why?
  4. This setup is just one way of running this classic rust experiment. You could also try the follwing experiment conditions too:

    - nail completely submerged in water vs. half submerged.
    - nail completely submerged in water with a layer of oil over the top of it.
    - nail in salt water vs. nail in pure salt

    You could also try normal steel nails vs. steel wool to investigate the effect of surface area on rusting rates as well.

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Why Does This Happen?

Rusting occurs when a metal is exposed to oxygen. The brown substance you found on your nail is call Iron oxide and is the product of the iron in the nail reacting with the oxygen in the air or in the liquids.

The s
alt and acid solutions acted as electrolytes. An electrolyte is any substance containing that free ions (charged atoms) that allows the substance to conduct electricity. If the nail was submerged in an electolyte it caused the iron to lose electrons more easily and so allow ocygen to bind with the iron more easily which speeds up the rusting process considerably.

Weird fact: Try boiling the water first; this releases a lot of the dissolved oxygen and so you'll find that the nail will not rust as much!

You can also try wrapping the nail in Copper wire and Magnesium strips (if you have access). You should find that the nail wrapped in copper rusts quickly where as the nail wrapped in Magnesium doesn't as the more reactive Magnesium acted as a sacrificial anode. Boats and other marine equipment have sacrificial anodes to help protect themselves from seawater corrosion.

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