Surface Area

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In this demonstration, learners discover that nanoparticles behave differently, in part because they have a high surface area to volume ratio. Learners learn that smaller particles have a much higher proportion of atoms on the surface. Learners unfold paper cubes, drop alka-seltzer in water, turn potatoes black with iodine, and observe fireballs to understand how surface area changes as things get small. Safety note: this demonstration involves poisonous and dangerous materials as well as fire; use precaution and adult supervision required.

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
5 to 10 minutes

Learning Time:
10 to 30 minutes

Estimated Materials Cost:
Over $20 per group of students

Age Range:
Ages 6 - adult

Resource Types:
Activity, Demonstration, Lesson/Lesson Plan

English, Spanish

Materials List (per group of students)

  • 2 buckets--white is best—one filled with water (for dousing hot and burning material)
  • 1 transparent beaker about 250 ml (about 1 cup)
  • 2 narrow containers, graduated cylinders or the like, about 100 ml (about ½ cup)
  • 2 cups to hold about 50 ml water each (about ¼ cup)
  • 1 tray
  • 2 tablets alka-seltzer per demo, 1 tablet crushed per demo
  • 1 candle
  • matches or lighter
  • lycopodium spore powder (Flinn Scientific or Carolina Biological or NOTE: This hazardous, flammable material will require direct payment from and shipping to a school or museum.)
  • A teaspoon
  • Nano silver anti-odor socks
  • 1 potato
  • A potato peeler
  • Potato flakes
  • Iodine solution (medical supply)
  • A scoop or spoon for adding flakes to solution
  • Eyedropper for adding iodine
  • Sample of colloidal gold
  • 35 wooden cubes (8 cubes are completely painted silver, 27 cubes are painted so that they assemble into a 3x3x3 supercube with all exterior surfaces painted and no interior surfaces painted. Each cube has holes, for pegs and Brio nails)
  • 70 Brio nails
  • Paper cube cutouts to cover two 2-inch cubes, one 4 inch cube, and one 6 inch cube (Make the two small folding cubes in different colors, one matching the medium cube and one matching the large one; raised lines are ideal)
  • Paper displays of cube surface area, in matching colors
  • One acrylic cube, scored to show 1,000 divisions
  • Aluminum bar
  • Steel wool
  • Tongs
  • Flexible tubing
  • Bulk lycopodium moss
  • Water
  • Food coloring


  • Engineering and Technology
    • Engineering
      • Metallurgy and Materials Engineering
      • Nanotechnology
  • Physical Sciences
    • Chemistry
      • Chemical Reactions
      • Solutions
    • Structure and Properties of Matter
      • Atomic Structure
      • Mass and Weight
      • Volume and Density
  • The Nature of Technology
    • Technology and Society
      • Impacts of Technology


To use this activity, learners need to:

  • see
  • see color
  • touch

Learning styles supported:

  • Involves hands-on or lab activities


Foreign language versions of this resource:

Components that are part of this resource:

This resource is part of:

Access Rights:

  • Free access



Funding Sources:

  • National Science Foundation, 0532536
  • National Science Foundation, 0940143