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Small Group Visits

Chromatography Butterfly

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  • White Coffee Filters
  • Drinking Glass
  • Water
  • Washable Markers (Tip: Black or Brown are Interesting for This Experiment)
  • Pipe Cleaner, Twist Tie, or Wire

Scroll through the slideshow above for a visual of each step.

  1. Pour a few inches of water into a drinking glass.
  2. Draw a thick circle on a coffee filter with washable marker, leaving the center white.
  3. Pinch the coffee filter from the center to create a point and dip the point into the water in the glass. (Important: Prop the filter on the rim of the glass so that the marker does NOT touch the water in the glass.)
  4. Wait a few minutes and watch the colors spread up the coffee filter.
  5. Pull the coffee filter out and lay it flat to dry.
  6. When dry, accordion-fold the coffee filter and use a pipe cleaner to twist around the center to create a butterfly.

Why Does This Happen?

Markers are full of ink made with different colored pigments.

The coffee filter carries water easily through itself. As the water passes through the marker ink you drew on the filter, the colored pigments in the ink travel at different speeds along the filter. Because the water carries the pigments at different rates, the colors separate so you can see their individual hues. This method of separating pigments is called paper chromatography.

What colors make up the ink in your marker?

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The Virginia Discovery Museum is a vital nonprofit community resource but has remained closed for in-person visits since March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please consider a donation to support us during this uncertain time. Donate Now