What are the dissolved solids in seawater?
Gradual evaporation of seawater leads to different salts crystallising out at different stages. These salts are analysed by testing for cations and anions.
This is best done as a class demonstration. The evaporation takes some time, so the theory of the cation and anion tests could be explained while it is taking place.
Students might have met flame tests and anion tests before, in which case this is good reinforcement in a familiar context. If this is a first experience of simple inorganic analysis, students might find it quite difficult unless it is carefully presented.
The students could either test the samples of solids formed, although not much is obtained in some cases. An alternative is to carry out the evaporation but provide samples of the expected salts for the students to analyse - see the Results Table in the Teaching Notes.
It should be possible to complete the experiment in an hour and a half.
The teacher will need:
Beakers (say 2000 cm
3, 400 cm 3, 250 cm 3, 100 cm 3), 1 of each
Tripod and gauze
Heat resistant mat
Vacuum filtration apparatus (Note 1)
Nichrome wire, short lengths for flame tests (Note 2)
Seawater, about 1 dm
3 ( Note 3)
Limewater (IRRITANT), 50 cm 3
Silver nitrate solution, 0.1 M, 10 cm 3
Barium chloride solution, 0.1 M (HARMFUL), 10 cm 3
Magneson reagent, 1 cm 3 ( Note 4)
hydrochloric acid, (CORROSIVE), 5 cm 3
hydrochloric acid, 2 M (IRRITANT), 10 cm 3
nitric acid, 2 M (CORROSIVE), 10 cm 3
Distilled or deionised water, 20 cm
Refer to Health & Safety and Technical notes section below for additional information.
Health & Safety and Technical notes
Read our standard health & safety guidance
Wear goggles throughout.
Limewater (calcium hydroxide solution), Ca(OH) 2(aq), (treat as IRRITANT) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard and CLEAPSS Recipe Book.
Silver nitrate solution, AgNO 3(aq) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard and CLEAPSS Recipe Book. At this concentration silver nitrate solution will stain skin and clothes.
Barium chloride solution, BaCl 2(aq) (HARMFUL) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard and CLEAPSS Recipe Book.
hydrochloric acid, HCl(aq), (CORROSIVE) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard and CLEAPSS Recipe Book.
hydrochloric acid, 2 M (IRRITANT) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
Nitric acid, HNO 3(aq), (CORROSIVE) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard and CLEAPSS Recipe Book.
1 Vacuum filtration apparatus: Buchner funnel and flask, filter paper, access to a vacuum pump - see CLEAPSS Laboratory handbook.
2 If students are doing the analysis, flame tests can be carried out by leaving a wooden splint to soak in a mixture of the solid and dilute hydrochloric acid for a few minutes and then placing the splint in a non-luminous Bunsen flame.
3 If the real seawater is not available, it can be made up as described in the CLEAPSS Recipe Book.
4 Magneson reagent (test for magnesium ions) can be made by dissolving 0.001g of magneson (HARMFUL) in 100 cm 3 of distilled or deionised water. See CLEAPSS Hazcard and CLEAPSS Recipe Book.
a Set up a heat resistant mat, Bunsen burner, tripod and gauze.
b Place 1 dm 3 of seawater in a 2 dm 3 beaker and evaporate it to 250 cm 3.
c Filter the solution through a vacuum filter. Keep the solid residue for testing.
d Place the filtrate in a 400 cm 3 beaker and evaporate it to 125 cm 3. Filter.
e Repeat (using suitable sized beakers), filtering at 25, 10 and 5 cm 3. Evaporate the last two carefully as spitting might occur.
f Scrape some of the residue at 250 cm 3 into a test-tube and add a 1 cm depth of 2 M hydrochloric acid. The residue should fizz. Show the presence of a carbonate by bubbling some of the gas through limewater.
g Carry out a flame test on the solid from f. A ‘brick red’ flame should indicate the presence of calcium. (Flame test: Dip a piece of nichrome wire in a few drops of concentrated hydrochloric acid on a watch glass and then hold it in the side of a roaring Bunsen flame until no colour is seen. Dip in the acid again and then dip into the solid. Place the wire in the side of the flame again. If no colour is seen, dip into the acid again. Use a fresh wire and fresh sample of acid for each test.)
h Repeat tests f and g on the residue at 125 cm 3. The same results should be obtained.
i Also, add an equal volume of barium chloride solution, 0.1 M, to the tube from f. A white precipitate should form, indicating sulfate.
j Repeat tests h and i on part of the residue at 25 cm 3. A yellow sodium flame should result and a faint white precipitate, indicating a sulfate, should be seen.
k Dissolve some more of the residue at 25 cm 3 in 1 cm depth of dilute nitric acid. Add an equal volume of silver nitrate solution. A white precipitate should indicate chloride.
l Repeat tests j and k on some of the residue at 10 cm 3. The presence of sulfate ions should be shown again.
m Shake some of the residue from 10 cm 3 with distilled water and add five drops of magneson reagent. A blue precipitate indicates the presence of a magnesium salt.
n Repeat tests l and m on the residue from 5 cm 3. A lilac potassium flame should be seen, although this may be masked by the yellow flame of sodium which may still be present. If this occurs, try viewing the flame through blue glass. Indications of magnesium and chloride should also be found.
A summary of the expected results is shown below. Note that there may well be additional salts to those listed present.
Volume / cm
potassium and magnesium
Potassium chloride and magnesium chloride
Flame colours are:
Calcium - ‘brick red’
Sodium - yellow-orange
Potassium - lilac
Magnesium - none
Small sodium impurities will show up in all flame tests. Only record sodium present for a bright yellow-orange flame.
The blue precipitate with magneson reagent is a magnesium complex ion.
The salts are deposited in order of their solubility, the least soluble first. (Students sometimes need help with this concept.)
Calcium carbonate comes from calcium hydrogencarbonate in solution:
3) 2(aq) → CaCO 3(s) + H 2O(l) + CO 2(l)
The test for carbonate is the production of carbon dioxide with hydrochloric acid.
3(s) + 2HCl(aq) → CaCl 2(aq) + CO 2(g) + H 2O(l)
The carbon dioxide reacts with limewater to form a white precipitate:
2(g) + Ca(OH) 2(aq) → CaCO 3(s) + H 2O(l)
The test for sulfate is a white precipitate with barium chloride (that does not dissolve in dilute hydrochloric acid):
4(aq) + BaCl 2(aq) → BaSO 4(s) + MgCl 2(aq)
The test for chloride is a white precipitate with silver nitrate (that does not dissolve in dilute nitric acid):
KCl(aq) + AgNO
3(aq) → AgCl(s) + KNO 3(aq)
Health & Safety checked, 2016
This Practical Chemistry resource was developed by the Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society of Chemistry.
© Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society of Chemistry
Page last updated October 2015