Diffusion is the name for the way molecules move from areas of high concentration, where there are lots of other similar molecules, to areas of low concentration, where there are fewer similar molecules. When the molecules are evenly spread throughout the space, it is called equilibrium. Imagine half a box filled with yellow balls and the other half filled with blue ones. If you set the box on something that vibrates, the balls will start to move around randomly, until the blue and yellow balls are evenly mixed up.
Think about the way pollutants move from one place to another through air, water and even soil. Or consider how bacteria are able to take up the substances they need to thrive. Your body has to transfer oxygen, carbon dioxide and water by processes involving diffusion as well.
Lots of things can affect how fast molecules diffuse, including temperature. When molecules are heated up, they vibrate faster and move around faster, which helps them achieve equilibrium more quickly than they would if it were cold.
Diffusion takes place in gases (like air), liquids (like food coloring moving through water,) and even solids (semiconductors for computers are made by diffusing elements into one another.)
You can watch food coloring diffuse through a colloid (gelatin) at home and measure how long it takes. Gelatin is a good substance to use for diffusion experiments since it doesn’t support convection, which is another kind of movement in fluids. You’ll just need clear gelatin (from the grocery store or Target), food coloring and water.
Follow the instructions on the gelatin box for making finger jello, but don’t use any fruit juice so that it remains clear. Pour the liquid gelatin into petri dishes, cups, or tupperware and let it harden. Then, using a straw, poke a hole or two in the gelatin, removing the plug so that you have a hole in the jello about 1/2 inch deep. Add a drop of food coloring in the hole in the jello.
Every so often, measure the circle of food coloring as it diffuses into the jello around it. How many cm per hour is it diffusing? If you put one plate in the refrigerator and an identical one at room temperature, do they diffuse at the same rate? Why do you think you see more than one color for certain shades of food coloring? What else could you try?
We made plates and did the same experiment using 2 cups of red cabbage juice, 2 cups of water and 4 packs of gelatin to see how fast a few drops of vinegar or baking soda solution would diffuse (a pigment in red cabbage turns pink when exposed to acid, and blue/green when exposed to a base!)
It’s also fun to experiment with the diffusion of substances across a membrane, like a paper towel. This is called osmosis. Membranes like the ones around your cells are selectively permeable and let water and oxygen in and out, but keep other, larger molecules from freely entering and exiting your cells.
For this experiment, you’ll need a jar (or two), paper towels, rubber bands and food coloring. Fill a jar with water and secure a paper towel in the jar’s mouth (with a rubber band) so that it hangs down into the water, making a water-filled chamber that you can add food coloring to. Put a few drops of food coloring into the chamber and see what happens.
Are the food coloring molecules small enough to pass through the paper towel “membrane?” What happens if you put something bigger, like popcorn kernels in the chamber? Can they pass through the small pores in the paper towel?
Do the same experiment in side-by-side jars, but fill one with ice water and the other with hot water. Does this affect the rate of osmosis or how fast the food coloring molecules diffuse throughout the water?
Think about helium balloons. If you take identical balloons and fill one with helium and the other with air, the helium balloon will shrink much faster as the smaller helium atoms diffuse out more quickly than the larger oxygen molecules.