Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Conservation of Mass Experiment
Name: Ron S.
Status: educator
Age: 30s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 12/20/2004

I am a science teacher and we have been looking at the law of conservation of mass. We did an experiment in which we weighed the reactants (Sodium chloride, Sodium carbonate and water) and then we weighed the products. This was all done in a sealed bag (hopefully). The problem is that every one of my students had a loss of mass. In my trials I had a loss of mass of 0.6 grams every time. Question: Does this mean that the Baggie was not acting as a closed system and we loss mass? Or does the exothermic energy have mass and that's were we lost the mass. I don't believe that energy has mass but another teacher here believes that to be true.

Now I have tested an endothermic reaction and if the second hypothesis is correct the weight of the products should be more than the reactants because it takes in heat energy but it too lost mass.


You are correct, your Baggie is likely not being a closed system. I'm presuming that your class is being very rigorous about the additions, i.e. not allowing the reactants to come into contact within the Baggie until it is already sealed, otherwise if you're generating gas that can be lost very quickly.

If your Baggie was truly a closed system, then I suspect something more pedestrian, like not properly taring the balance, or the balance being miscalibrated. The last possibility I can think of is that if there is enough exothermic energy, the Baggie essentially becomes a hot air balloon (it may not be enough to lift the Baggie, but could result in a decrease in weight). Although its mass is not truly changed, its buoyancy relative to ambient air may have. Assuming you have no leaks, once it is cooled down the weight (not the same as mass) should come back up.

Don Yee


NO mass is lost in a chemical reaction. Yes, energy can come from mass (E=mc^2), but (1) that is in nuclear reactions, and (2) the energies that you produce are so small that the mass loss -if any- would be so infinitesimally tiny (c is after all 3x10^8 - and it is squared). The energy that you observe in the reaction is really due to the difference in the internal energy (or Gibb's Free Energy) between reactant and product.

I am a bit confused on what reaction you are doing NaCl + Na2CO3 + H2O to my mind does nothing. I'm going to guess that you meant HCl instead of NaCl and that the expected products are NaCl, H2O and CO2. If my guess is correct, then there might be a problem in your experimental set-up. I would suggest using a reaction wherein the reactants and products are either solids, liquids and aqueous solutions - no gases.

Greg (Roberto Gregorius)

Strictly speaking, mass is not a conserved quantity. Mass and energy are related by the famous equation: E=mc^2. However, because the relating quantity, c^2 is so large for purposes of "chemistry" it is conserved for all practical purposes. The conversion is 1 cal = 4.184 joules. The mass of a single proton (1.6726x10^-27 kg) ~ 1.5x10^-10 joules, so clearly you could never observe a violation of that approximately conserved quantity. I don't think you can trust that a "Baggie" is going to be "gas-tight".

In about 1918 mathematician Emmy Noether proved that a physical variable is conserved, if and only if, there is a continuous symmetry associated with that variable. No less than Albert Einstein praised her contribution to physics as "penetrating mathematical thinking". So of the common physical variables: 'energy', with the associated continuous symmetry 'time'; 'momentum' with the associated continuous symmetry 'position'; and 'angular momentum' with the associated continuous symmetry 'rotation' are strictly conserved. Mass is not.

Born in 1882, her contributions to both the physics and mathematics (abstract algebra) are all the more remarkable, being a woman in pre-Hitler Germany. She moved to the U.S. in the 1930's and taught at Bryn Mawr University until her untimely death in 1935. She is considered the most prestigious woman mathematician of all time. It is a statement to how far we have yet to go, that few recognize her name, a name that ranks right up there with Gauss, Cauchy, Riemann, and Hilbert (her mentor).

Vince Calder

You do not loose mass by loosing energy. If you only turned a tiny amount of matter into energy, E=mc2, then you would have quite a bang!

So maybe other errors. I do not see much of a reaction here, but maybe you are loosing some CO2 from the carbonate. Maybe the scale is not working well. Maybe the Baggie is getting filled with gas, getting buoyant in the air. 0.6 grams is a lot if you are using a fancy electronic balance, they are good to much finer level. But if you are using a cheap scale, then maybe you just have this as error.

Steve Ross

Normally when we weigh objects we neglect the buoyant effect of air because of the small effect it has. However, if your products include a gas, such as carbon dioxide, it will significantly increase the volume of what you are weighing. In this case you have to account for the weight of the air displaced by the volume of the products. Air weighs a little over a gram per liter so if you produced half a liter of gas this might account for the mis-match in masses.

Greg Bradburn

Click here to return to the Chemistry Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory