Holiday DIY: Crystal Chemistry

Crystals may seem like a geologic scientific mystery…until you see them grow in your own kitchen! Here is what you will need:

  • Wide mouth jars or cups
  • Pipe Cleaners (You can also use coffee filter paper or experiment with other materials. Even white paper works okay)
  • String
  • Popsicle sticks (Pencils work too!)
  • Borax
    • Note: Borax is a mild skin irritant. Nothing here necessitates touching it, but wearing gloves can be a good precaution, especially if you have sensitive skin. Definitely wear gloves during cleanup!
  • A pot of water and a stove

Step 1: Start by making whatever shape you want to crystalize out of pipe cleaner. This will be the base for the crystals to grow on. You can try using other materials too!  We tried to go for holiday themed shapes, but it is important to note that we are not artists!
Step 2: Use a string to tie your creation to the popsicle stick. Then set the popsicle stick over the top of the jar so the pipe cleaner masterpiece hangs about an inch or higher from the bottom (some of the ones in the picture below are too low!). Don’t worry too much about the length of string, if it is too long, just twist the popsicle stick to raise it!
hanging holidays
Step 3: Get the water hot on the stove. It needs to be close to, or even boiling. Add borax and stir it in until it disappears. Repeat this until you start to see Borax on the bottom of the pot. It can dissolve a LOT, so don’t be shy. The amount will also depend entirely on the amount of water. The water may get too cloudy to see the bottom, so use a spoon to check instead.
Step 4: At this point, just pour your mixture carefully into the jar with the pipe cleaner suspended inside. For more festive results, now is a great time to add a few drops of food coloring. Crystals should start to form within an hour. For big crystals, let them go overnight!
Once they are ready, grab the popsicle stick and pull them out! Depending on how much borax you got to dissolve in the solution in step 3 and how long you left the crystals to grow, the amount of crystallization that you get can be radically different. Feel free to experiment! After all, this is science!
Pro Tip: For cleanup, be careful disposing of the leftover borax solution. It could crystalize in your drain in the same way. To prevent this from happening, just run hot water as you slowly pour it out.
Now let’s take a look at what was happening and why this whole thing works! Ever notice that you can dissolve more sugar in hot tea than iced tea? Warm liquids can handle greater concentrations of dissolved substances than those at room temperature. These mixtures are called supersaturated, and they’re very unstable– it doesn’t take much to re-separate their ingredients as they cool. Given something to attach to, the molecules suspended in a supersaturated solution will begin clumping together in crystals.