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 Reaction Rate, Surface Area, and Geometry
Name: Nidhi
Status: student
Grade: 9-12
Country: Canada
Date: Winter 2010-11

Hello, I recently did a chemistry experiment where i measured the effect of surface area on the rate of the reaction, the reaction between magnesium and hydrochloric acid. 15ml of 3.0mol/L HCl was used and a 0.4*1.0cm strip of magnesium was used for each trial. to change the surface area, i folded the magnesium (in half, in thirds, in the shape of a V,and cylindrical). The flat piece of magnesium and the cylindrical one did have the same surface area though. The reaction was measured by the collection of hydrogen gas (downward displacement of water).three trials were done, all trials showed similar data. i know that as surface area increases the rate of reaction should also but there were 2 outliers to my data: flat and cylindrical piece both of which had the highest surface area. The flat piece of magnesium was supposed to have the fastest rate, but it had the lowest, by 10ml/s. The cylindrical piece had the 2nd highest rate but it had the same surface area as the flat piece. I have no clue why that happened, how to account for it or how to explain it.


Did you perform repeat measurements on each way of folding the Mg? A single piece of data has little significance in science, we must verify any result by repeating it.

I would not expect that folding the Mg would really change the surface area, as acid will get in between the fold, but it still could if you sealed it well.

I would advise you to repeat and repeat!!

Best wishes,

Tom Collins

Nidhi - I am wondering if your flat piece was lying flat on the bottom of the vessel while reacting. If true, then the bottom face was getting much less access to acid, and its contribution to reaction rate may have been nearly suppressed.

On the other hand, if the bubbles were furious and the strip was tumbling in the acid, then the bottom face is unlikely to have been suppressed, and then I have no explanation to offer you.

Jim Swenson


Measuring rates is always difficult - so do not get frustrated. The reason rates measurements are tough is because many things can control rates and it is often difficult to keep those things the same throughout your experiments. Things like fluctuations in temperature can drastically affect rates. Changes in air pressure, even the height of the collecting tube over the pan of water, can affect how fast the water is displaced. Since Mg is easily oxidized, the amount of oxidation coating the strip can also have some effect.

Here are some suggestions: (1) Be sure to clean the strips with a fine sand-paper. (2) Try to get a strong difference in rates first by really changing the surface area between two samples. For example you could hammer one strip into a flat strip measuring approximately 0.4*0.25cm (folding the strip twice and flattening it). (3) Make sure that the height of the water-filled collection tube relative to the pan and to the surface of the floor is the same for all trials. (4) See how much of a difference a compact strip will have versus an open one. This way, you can tell whether a small variation, such as a V- or cylindrical shape, is statistically significant.

Greg (Roberto Gregorius)
Canisius College

Is it possible that there was something preventing contact between the Mg and the acid solution?

How had that piece of Mg been handled compared with how the other pieces had been handled?

Greg Bradburn

Hi Nidhi,

3 replicates of each treatment may not be the most robust for establishing the significance of differences among your test cases, but it is better than nothing. What you will probably find is that the differences among treatments are all insignificant, i.e. the differences between trials within one type of treatment are as big as differences between treatments.

Now as for why that would be, my first suspicion is that your treatments really did not appreciably change the surface area available for reaction- your folded pieces have to be folded so tightly that fluid/gas is incapable of (or at least restricted from) reaching the interior surface. Something to coat part of the Mg piece that can withstand the HCl - paint/epoxy/nail polish/wax - would be a more foolproof way of reducing the surface area.

Another factor that cannot be established from your description is the orientation of your Mg pieces in a tube/beaker/flask. Some orientations could enhance/reduce advective currents which would increase/decrease apparent reaction rates, and orientations would need to be consistent within a treatment to get good reproducibility.

Between these variables, there might be things you could improve to reduce variability within treatments, and give you a better shot at finding consistent and significant differences among treatments. If you cannot redo the experiments, think about what the most likely causes of variability are, and note that in your write-up.

Don Yee

There are not enough of details to re-analyze your results.

You do not mention any shape "controls" for each geometry. If you double the surface area of a particular shape, does the rate double? How were you able to calculate the surface area and volume of the strip without knowing its thickness? Were the origins of the strip the same (assuming the 0.4 x 1 cm strip is the length and width, and not the thickness of the ribbon)? Was the cylinder a rolled up tube of the strip of Mg, or a solid piece of Mg from the same sample of metal? Was the surface area of the cylinder (including / not including) the ends of the cylinder? Did the rate of reaction of various flat pieces (depend / not depend) on whether the surface area was changed by folding (as you did) the same as cutting pieces of the foil?

You have learned an important lesson, although giving you an answer you did not expect. Science is all about digging out the explanation of unexpected results. If we knew the answer before we began, there would not be any reason to do the experiment in the first place! Welcome to the world of science.

Vince Calder

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