Make The Home Scientist General  Setting Up a Home Science Laboratory, Part III

The Home Scientist
by Robert Bruce Thompson

Setting Up a Home Science Laboratory
Part III - Chemicals on the Cheap
1 June 2009

Laboratory chemicals are expensive, at least if you buy them from specialty lab supply vendors. Fortunately, there are many alternative sources for good quality, useful chemicals at reasonable prices. In fact, it's possible to stock a home lab pretty comprehensively while buying only a few chemicals from specialty vendors.

These alternative sources are many and varied, including the drugstore, supermarket, hardware store or home improvement center, auto parts store, lawn and garden store, and pottery supply store. The following image shows just the first dozen or so chemicals that came to hand when I did a quick pillage of my lab to set up the shot. There are literally dozens more like them in my lab.

The purity of these chemicals ranges from very high (USP or FCC grades, intended for human consumption) to the lower practical and technical grades. For routine use, even practical or technical grade chemicals often suffice, and many of the impure chemicals can be purified to very high standards using such ordinary lab procedures as recrystallization and distillation, which we'll cover in later articles.

Furthermore, you're not limited to the chemicals offered for sale. You can use these readily-available chemicals to synthesize other chemicals. For example, in one of our videos Dr. Mary Chervenak reacts copper(II) sulfate (root killer) with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to form pure copper(II) carbonate. In a later lab session, we react a portion of that copper(II) carbonate with acetic acid (distilled white vinegar) to produce copper(II) acetate, another portion with hydrochloric acid (muriatic acid from the hardware store) to produce copper(II) chloride, and a third portion with nitric acid to produce copper(II) nitrate. In another lab session, we react muriatic acid with steel wool to produce iron(II) chloride (ferrous chloride) and iron(III) chloride (ferric chloride). In still another lab session, we convert a pound of barium carbonate purchased for about three bucks from a pottery supplies vendor into about $30 worth of barium chloride, barium nitrate, and barium hydroxide. And so on.

Pottery supply stores in particular are an excellent inexpensive source for many hard-to-find chemicals, which are used mostly in glazes. Most chemicals are sold in one-pound and larger packages (often sealed paper or plastic bags), although most vendors also offer half-pound, quarter-pound, or smaller quantities. Although the chemicals are technical grade, they're often of surprisingly high purity. (Potters will not tolerate impure chemicals ruining a finished piece, which pottery supply stores are well aware of.) Carbonates are the most useful form of these chemicals, because the only byproducts of their reactions with acids are water and carbon dioxide. For example, reacting barium carbonate with hydrochloric (muriatic) acid yields only barium chloride (the desired product), water, and carbon dioxide, making it easy to purify the product.

The image below shows some of the "building block" chemicals I bought from Seattle Pottery Supply, from which I can synthesize literally dozens of other useful chemicals. I paid about $60 for these chemicals, which with a few hours work I can convert to several hundred dollars' worth of other useful chemicals.

For many home chemists, it's a point of pride to synthesize and purify their own chemicals. It is immensely satisfying to look to a bottle on the shelf and know that you made what's in that bottle, that it's just as pure as the expensive commercial ACS Reagent grade chemical sold by specialty vendors, and that making it cost a tenth of what it would have cost to buy.

Core Chemicals

Here are some chemicals you'll need to stock up your lab, both for general use and for use in synthesizing other chemicals. Those in bold are high-priority chemicals that you'll probably want to stock in reasonable quantities, say a pound or two (500 g to 1 kg) for solid chemicals, and a pint to a gallon (500 mL to 4 L) for liquid chemicals, particularly if you plan to do any syntheses. Recommended quantities are shown in parentheses.

Share and share alike

For many chemicals from alternate sources, the minimum package size may be much more than you need. For example, we bought a 5-pound bag of ammonium nitrate for a few bucks at the garden store. At the home improvement store, we found a 2-pound bottle of pure copper(II) sulfate weed killer for about eight bucks and a 2-pound bottle of pure sodium hydroxide crystal drain opener for about five bucks. In each case, that was at least twice as much as we needed. If you can get together with other like-minded hobbyists or home-schooling families, you can divvy up these larger containers and get the amount you really need at a true bargain price.

Calcium chloride - the primary or sole ??? You can also make up calcium chloride yourself by reacting calcium carbonate with hydrochloric (muriatic) acid.

Calcium hydroxide

Calcium oxide

The Special Case of Nitric Acid

Concentrated nitric acid is difficult to find locally, and is expensive to ship because shipping it in any quantity requires a hazardous material shipping surcharge. If you can find it locally, buy it. Otherwise, one good source of concentrated nitric acid is Elemental Scientific (, which offers ACS Reagent grade concentrated (68%) nitric acid in one-ounce, eight-ounce, and sixteen-ounce bottles at a good price. There is a $20 hazardous materials shipping surcharge, but Elemental can ship up to eight one-pint bottles for that one surcharge. If you can get together with other like-minded DIY science enthusiasts or home school families, you can combine your orders and obtain a pint or more of concentrated nitric acid for a reasonable price. In particular if you plan to synthesize your own chemicals and/or do qualitative/quantitative analysis experiments, you'll want at least a pint of concentrated nitric acid on hand. Store separately from all other chemicals.

Oxalic acid


Sodium borate

Sodium hydroxide

Sodium hypochlorite

Sodium molybdate - see Ammonium molybdate


Sulfuric acid


Zinc ???

Get 'em while you can

If you plan to synthesize chemicals, you'll need storage containers for them. One excellent solution is to use plastic 35mm film cans, which for now are usually free for the asking at most drugstores. These cans are made of chemical-resistant plastic, have tight-fitting lids, and are large enough to hold 25 mL of liquid or 50 to 100 grams of most solid chemicals. Get them while you can. The woman at the photo counter at our local Walgreen's told us that they used to get 100 to 200 film cans a day. That's now down to maybe five per day, as digital cameras kill 35mm film. We have a garbage bag full of them, which we use for our own purposes and to make up science sets for local kids.

Specialty Chemicals

It makes more sense to buy some chemicals instead of synthesizing them

□ Acetic acid, glacial (100 mL) [reagent grade]

□ Acetone (100 ml)

□ Aluminum metal (25 g) [granules, filings, turnings, or shot]

□ Ammonia, aqueous, concentrated (100 mL) [reagent grade, 28% to 30%]

□ Ammonium acetate (25 g)

□ Ammonium chloride (25 g)

Ammonium molybdate - The ammonium or sodium salt of molybdic acid (which are generally interchangeable) is sold by some garden centers and hydroponics suppliers as a trace nutrient. Hydro Gardens, for example, sells two ounces of sodium molybdate for $7. (one ounce, if you intend to do qualitative/quantitative analysis lab sessions)

□ Ammonium nitrate (50 g)

□ Calcium carbonate, granular (25 g) [suitable for use as boiling chips]

□ Calcium chloride (25 g)

□ Calcium hydroxide (25 g)

□ Calcium oxide (25 g)

□ Charcoal, activated (10 g)

□ Cobalt(II) chloride hexahydrate (10 g)

□ Copper(II) carbonate (10 g)

□ Copper(II) nitrate trihydrate (25 g)

□ Copper(II) sulfate pentahydrate (100 g) [technical grade is fine]

□ Glycerol (25 mL)

□ Hydrochloric acid, 37% (100 mL) [reagent grade]

□ Iodine crystals (5 g)

□ Iron filings (25 g)

□ Iron shot (100 g) [or steel shot]

□ Iron(II) sulfate heptahydrate (ferrous sulfate) (25 g)

□ Iron(III) ammonium sulfate (ferric ammonium sulfate) (25 g)

□ Iron(III) chloride anhydrous (ferric chloride) (25 g)

□ Lead metal (100 g) [shot]

□ Lead nitrate (25 g)

□ Lithium chloride (25 g)

□ Magnesium metal (50 cm strip)

□ Magnesium sulfate (50 g)

□ Manganese dioxide (10 g)

□ Mineral oil (25 mL)

□ Naphthalene (25 g) [flakes]

□ Oxalic acid (10 g)

□ Paradichlorobenzene (25 g)

□ Petroleum ether (100 mL)

□ Phenolphthalein powder (5 g)

□ Polyvinyl alcohol (25 g)

□ Potassium chlorate (25 g)

□ Potassium chloride (25 g)

□ Potassium chromate (25 g)

□ Potassium hexacyanoferrate(II) trihydrate (potassium ferrocyanide) (25 g)

□ Potassium hexacyanoferrate(III) (potassium ferricyanide) (25 g)

□ Potassium hydrogen tartrate (10 g)

□ Potassium iodide (25 g)

□ Potassium permanganate (25 g)

□ Silver nitrate (5 g)

□ Sodium acetate, anhydrous (25 g)

□ Sodium bicarbonate (50 g)

□ Sodium bisulfate (25 g)

□ Sodium bisulfite (25 g)

□ Sodium borate (25 g)

□ Sodium carbonate, anhydrous (100 g)

□ Sodium hydroxide (100 g)

□ Sodium nitrate (25 g)

□ Sodium nitrite (25 g)

□ Sodium phosphate, tribasic dodecahydrate (25 g)

□ Sodium sulfate decahydrate (25 g)

□ Sodium sulfite anhydrous (25 g)

□ Sodium thiosulfate pentahydrate (25 g)

□ Starch, soluble (5 g)

□ Strontium chloride (10 g)

□ Sulfur (25 g)

□ Sulfuric acid, 98% (100 mL) [reagent grade]

□ Zinc metal (25 g) [mossy or granular; reagent grade]

□ Zinc sulfate (25 g)

72301-HP       ANTIMONY OXIDE - 1/2 LB.                       1         $3.75         $3.75
72300-1        BARIUM CARBONATE - 1 LB.                       1         $2.95         $2.95
71051-QP       IRON CHLORIDE - 1/4 LB.                        1         $2.35         $2.35
71012-HP       LITHIUM CARBONATE (FINE) - 1/2 LB.             1         $3.95         $3.95
72335-HP       MANGANESE CARBONATE - 1/2 LB.                  1         $2.50         $2.50
72336-HP       MANGANESE DIOXIDE - 1/2 LB.                    1         $2.35         $2.35
72339-QP       NICKEL CARBONATE - 1/4 LB.                     1         $6.50         $6.50
72342-HP       POTASSIUM (DI)BICHROMATE - 1/2 LB.             1         $2.95         $2.95
72345-1        POTASSIUM NITRATE - 1 LB.                      1         $3.00         $3.00
72349-5        SODA ASH (SODIUM CARBONATE) - 5 LB.            1         $3.50         $3.50
72376-1        SODIUM FLUORIDE - 1 LB.                        1         $3.00         $3.00
72354-1        SODIUM NITRATE - 1 LB.                         1         $3.00         $3.00
72393-QP       STANNOUS (TIN) CHLORIDE - 1/4 LB.              1         $5.95         $5.95
72356-1        STRONTIUM CARBONATE - 1 LB.                    1         $4.00         $4.00
72362-QP       VANADIUM PENTOXIDE - 1/4 LB.                   1         $8.50         $8.50

72301-HP       ANTIMONY OXIDE - 1/2 LB.                       1         $3.75         $3.75
72300-1        BARIUM CARBONATE - 1 LB.                       1         $2.95         $2.95
71051-QP       IRON CHLORIDE - 1/4 LB.                        1         $2.35         $2.35
71012-HP       LITHIUM CARBONATE (FINE) - 1/2 LB.             1         $3.95         $3.95
72335-HP       MANGANESE CARBONATE - 1/2 LB.                  1         $2.50         $2.50
72336-HP       MANGANESE DIOXIDE - 1/2 LB.                    1         $2.35         $2.35
72339-QP       NICKEL CARBONATE - 1/4 LB.                     1         $6.50         $6.50
72342-HP       POTASSIUM (DI)BICHROMATE - 1/2 LB.             1         $2.95         $2.95
72345-1        POTASSIUM NITRATE - 1 LB.                      1         $3.00         $3.00
72349-5        SODA ASH (SODIUM CARBONATE) - 5 LB.            1         $3.50         $3.50
72376-1        SODIUM FLUORIDE - 1 LB.                        1         $3.00         $3.00
72354-1        SODIUM NITRATE - 1 LB.                         1         $3.00         $3.00
72393-QP       STANNOUS (TIN) CHLORIDE - 1/4 LB.              1         $5.95         $5.95
72356-1        STRONTIUM CARBONATE - 1 LB.                    1         $4.00         $4.00
72362-QP       VANADIUM PENTOXIDE - 1/4 LB.                   1         $8.50         $8.50

Distilled water








Toluene was formerly widely available in the paint section of hardware stores and home improvement centers, but is now harder to find???







Sodium bicarbonate


Sodium carbonate


Sodium hydroxide


Other chemicals


Copper sulfate


pottery supply

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