real science for today's homeschooler

Separating Colors with Chromatography

Separating Colors with Chromatography

What is Chromatography?

Chromatography is the process of separating a mixture into its individual components. The easiest way to show this process to children is by using chromatography to separate inks. Waterproof inks in permanent markers and ball point pens require a chemical solvent, but the ink in washable markers can be separated with water, making for an easy and safe experiment.


washable markers, coffee filters, pie pan


1. Flatten a coffee filter so that it can be written on.

2. Using washable markers, put small dots of different colors around the outside of the filter, about ½ to 1 inch from the outside edge. (Smaller dots work best. It is hard for the colors to really separate if there is too much ink on the paper.)

3. Put water in the bottom of the pie pan, using just enough to cover the bottom completely.

4. Arrange the filter so that it is back in its original shape with the pleats all neat, etc.

5 Place the filter upside down into the pie plate so that the outer edges are in the water. (It is very important that the dots be above the surface of the water in the pan. If the dots touch the water, the ink will dissolve into the water and the chromatography won’t work!)

6. Allow the water to creep up through the filter. As the water reaches the dots, the ink will begin to spread out and separate. This will take some time, but eventually the water will reach the top.

7. When the filter is completely wet, carefully remove the filter and allow it to dry.

8. Examine the results to see which colors make up each of the inks tested.

How it works:

The process of using paper chromatography to separate inks is pretty simple. Most colors of inks are actually made of more than one pigment, or color. Each of those pigments has different properties. Some are heavier than others. When a solvent passes through the ink, it picks up the different pigments and begins to carry them along. The lighter the weight of the pigment, the faster and farther it will travel. As each pigment continues to travel at a different speed, they become separated from each other, allowing you to see the individual colors that make up the original ink.


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