The Copper Test Tube

Demonstration Kit


Take a test tube that “appears” to be absolutely clear, add a few milliliters of different “magical” solutions. Swirl the test tube around and place it in hot water. Before students’ very eyes, they will see a beautiful film of copper deposited on the test tube glass.


  • Oxidation–reduction
  • Classification test


Fehlings Solution A, 2 mL*†
Fehlings Solution B, 2 mL*†
Glyoxal, CHOCHO, 40% in H2O, 1 mL*
Nitric acid, HNO3, concentrated, 5 mL*
Silver nitrate solution, 0.06 molar, 20 drops*†
Tin(II) chloride solution, 0.05 molar, acidified, 20 drops*†
Beaker, 50-mL
Beaker, 250-mL or larger
Graduation cylinder, 10-mL
Hot plate or Bunsen burner with ring stand setup
Medicine dropper
Steel wool
Test tube, small, 13 x 100 mm
Test tube clamp
*Materials included in kit.
See Prelab Preparation.

Safety Precautions

Concentrated nitric acid is corrosive, a strong oxidant and toxic by inhalation. Avoid contact with acetic acid and readily oxidized substances especially glyoxal. Tin(II) chloride solution is an acidified solution. It is a corrosive, moderately toxic solution and should be treated with care since the solution contains hydrochloric acid. Silver nitrate solution is moderately toxic and irritating to body tissue. Avoid contact with eyes and skin. Fehling’s Solution A (copper(II) sulfate solution) is slightly toxic by ingestion. Fehling’s Solution B (potassium sodium tartrate solution) is caustic; avoid eye and skin exposure. Glyoxal solution, 40%, is moderately irritating to skin and mucous membranes. A precipitate may form due to prolonged storage but can be redissolved by warming to 50–60 °C. Practice strict hygiene when using these materials. Wear chemical splash goggles, chemical-resistant gloves and a chemical-resistant apron. Work in an efficient fume hood. Please review current Safety Data Sheets for additional safety, handling and disposal information.


Please consult your current Flinn Scientific Catalog/Reference Manual for general guidelines and specific procedures, and review all federal, state and local regulations that may apply, before proceeding. Fehling’s solution B may be neutralized according to Flinn Suggested Disposal Method #10. The silver nitrate may be precipitated according to Flinn Suggested Disposal Method #11. For treatment of the glyoxal solution see Flinn Suggested Disposal Method #18b. The nitric acid may be neutralized according to Flinn Suggested Disposal Method #24b. Fehling’s solution A and tin(II) chloride solution may both be flushed down the drain with excess water according to Flinn Suggested Disposal Method #26b.

Prelab Preparation

Fehlings Solution A: Dissolve 7 g of copper(II) sulfate, CuSO4•5H2O in 100 mL of distilled water.

Fehlings Solution B: Dissolve 35 g of potassium sodium tartrate, KNaC4H4O6•4H2O, and 15.4 g of sodium hydroxide, NaOH, in 100 mL of distilled water.

Silver Nitrate Solution, 0.06 M: Dissolve 1.0 gram of silver nitrate, AgNO3, in 100 mL of distilled water.

Tin(II) Chloride Solution, 0.05 M, Acidified: Dissolve 1.2 g of tin(II) chloride, SnCl2•2H2O in 100 mL of 6 M hydrochloric acid, HCl.


  1. Using steel wool, thoroughly roughen the inside of a small test tube.
  2. Wash the inside of the test tube with a few milliliters of concentrated nitric acid. Rinse the test tube well with distilled water.
  3. Rinse the test tube with about 1 mL of acidified tin(II) chloride solution. Pour this solution out.
  4.  Rinse the test tube with about 1 mL of the silver nitrate solution. Pour this solution out.
  5. Add 15 mL of the Fehling’s Solution A (copper(II) sulfate solution) to 15 mL of the Fehling’s Solution B (potassium sodium tartrate solution) in a small beaker. Mix the two solutions (see Tips).
  6. Place 4 mL of the resulting mixture into the test tube. Save the rest of the Fehling’s solution for demos later in the day (see Tips).
  7. Add 1 mL of the 40% glyoxal solution to the test tube.
  8. Place the test tube in a warm water bath (about 50 °C) and observe as the copper mirror develops in a few minutes. Keep the solutions under the boiling point (100 °C).
  9. Pour out the reaction mixture and rinse with distilled water to observe copper mirror.

Student Worksheet PDF


Teacher Tips

  • Though it is somewhat difficult to do, it is important to roughen the inside of the test tube in order to get good results. One method is to scour the inside of the test tube using a wooden splint to manipulate the steel wool.
  • A precipitate will form when silver nitrate is added. The suspension will be poured out before the Fehling’s solution is added.
  • If you are going to do all seven demonstrations on the same day, mix all of the Fehling’s Solution A (copper(II) sulfate solution) and Fehling’s Solution B (potassium sodium tartrate solution) in the morning. It will last all day, but no longer. Otherwise, mix only 2.0 mL of each solution to make the 4 mL needed for each demonstration.
  • If the copper mirror forms quickly, then the water bath may be too hot. Better results are achieved when the mirror forms slowly.

Correlation to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

Science & Engineering Practices

Analyzing and interpreting data

Disciplinary Core Ideas

MS-PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter
MS-PS1.B: Chemical Reactions
HS-PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter

Crosscutting Concepts


Performance Expectations

MS-PS1-2. Analyze and interpret data on the properties of substances before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred.

Answers to Questions

  1. Describe what happened in this demonstration.

    A solution was placed in a clean, clear test tube. A small amount of another solution was then added to it. The test tube was heated in a warm water bath and a copper, mirror-like film deposited on the glass.

  2. In this demonstration, copper from the copper(II) sulfate solution (Fehling’s Solution A) is reduced to copper metal. Write a chemical equation for the reduction half-reaction.

    Cu2+ + 2e → Cu(s)

  3. The inside of the test tube was scoured with steel wool and rinsed with nitric acid, acidified stannous chloride solution and silver nitrate solution. The steel wool and the nitric acid were used to make sure the test tube was completely clean. What do you think the purpose of the tin and silver solutions was?

    The purpose of the tin and the silver was to deposit a thin, silvery layer on the glass, where the copper deposited.

  4. What is an oxidation/reduction reaction?

    An oxidation/reduction (or “redox”) reaction occurs when one or more electrons are transferred between molecules. Oxidation refers to a loss of electrons (and rise in oxidation state), and reduction refers to a gain of electrons (and subsequent decrease in oxidation state).


In this demonstration, glyoxal, an aldehyde, is oxidized to glyoxalic acid, a carboxylic acid. Copper ions in the Fehling’s solution are reduced.

Fehling’s solution is used as a classification test to identify aldehydes. Normally, the reaction of an aldehyde with Fehling’s solution reduces Cu2+ to Cu(I), as Cu2O(s). However, at high concentrations of glyoxal further reduction occurs, producing the metallic copper. The steel wool and nitric acid are used to thoroughly clean the glass surface. The tin and silver solutions are then added to create a thin layer of silver on the glass. Copper then deposits on the silver layer, creating the copper mirror surface.


Special thanks to Jim and Julie Ealy, The Peddie School, Hightstown, NJ, who provided us with the instructions for this activity.

Hill, J. W., D. L. Foss, and L. W. Scott J. Chem. Educ., 1979, 56, 752.

Summerlin, L. R., C. L. Borford, J. B. Ealy, Chemical Demonstrations: A Sourcebook for Teachers. American Chemical Society: Washington, D.C., Vol. 2, 1988, pp 187–188.

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