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Expt:Cracking hydrocarbons

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In this experiment the vapour of liquid paraffin (a mixture of saturated hydrocarbons) is cracked by passing it over a heated catalyst. The mixture of gaseous short-chain hydrocarbons produced is collected and tested for unsaturation with bromine water and acidified potassium manganate(VII) solution.

Apparatus and chemicals

  • Eye protection
  • Safety screens (for demonstration)

Each working group requires:

  • Test-tubes (4)
  • Bungs, to fit test-tubes (4)
  • Test-tube rack
  • Boiling tube (see note 1)
  • Bung, one-holed, to fit boiling tube
  • Delivery tube fitted with a Bunsen valve (see note 2)
  • Small glass trough or plastic basin, for gas collection over water
  • Bunsen burner
  • Heat resistant mat
  • Stand and clamp
  • Dropping pipette
  • Wooden splint
  • Medicinal paraffin (Liquid paraffin - NOT the fuel) (Low hazard), about 2 cm3
  • Porous pot or pumice stone fragments (see note 3)
  • Bromine water, 0.02 mol dm-3 - diluted to a pale yellow-orange colour (Harmful at concentration used), about 2 cm3 (see note 4)
  • Acidified potassium manganate(VII) solution, about 0.001 mol dm-3 (Low Hazard at concentration used), about 2 cm3
  • Mineral wool (preferably 'Superwool')

Technical notes

Medicinal paraffin (Liiquid paraffin) (Low hazard) Refer to CLEAPSS® Hazcard 45B

Bromine water (Harmful at concentration used) Refer to CLEAPSS® Hazcard 15B and Recipe card 28

Potassium manganate(VII) (potassium permanganate) solution, about 0.02 mol dm–3 (Low hazard at concentration used) Refer to CLEAPSS® Hazcard 91 and Recipe Card 86

Dilute sulfuric acid, 0.1 mol dm-3 (Low hazard at concentration used) Refer to CLEAPSS® Hazcard 98A and Recipe Card 69

Mineral wool (preferably 'Superwool') Refer to CLEAPSS® Hazcard 86

1. The boiling tube should be a hard glass (borosilicate) 150 mm x 25 mm test-tube.

2. It is important to ensure that the bung and the boiling tube fit well. Bunsen valves (see diagram below) can be made by attaching a 3 cm long piece of clean, unused, soft rubber tubing to the delivery tube, and then attaching a short length (1 - 2 cm) of glass rod, as shown in the diagram below. The rubber tubing should be slit on one side along about 1 cm of its length in the direction of the tubing. The use of a Bunsen valve should stop 'suck-back' occurring. See CLEAPSS® Laboratory Handbook 13.2.1.

apparatus for cracking hydrocarbons experiment

3. Porous pot chips can be made by crushing broken crucibles into pea-sized fragments.

4. Dilute the bromine water until it is yellow in colour. About 0.005 to 0.01 mol dm-3 is adequate. Above 1% concentration (0.02 mol dm-3), bromine water is Toxic and an irritant.


Health & Safety

Wear eye protection throughout.


For a demonstration the class and teacher should be protected by safety screens in case of unexpected suck-back causing the the hot tube to shatter.

A. Place about a 2 cm3 depth of mineral wool in the bottom of the boiling tube and gently press it in place with a glass rod. Drop about 2 cm3 of liquid paraffin on to the wool, using a dropping pipette, Use enough paraffin to completely soak the mineral wool, but not so much that the paraffin runs along the side of the tube when it is placed horizontally.

B. Clamp the boiling tube near the mouth so that it is tilted slightly upwards, as shown in the diagram below. Place a heap of catalyst (pumice stone or porous pot fragments) in centre of the tube and fit the delivery tube.

C. Fill the trough about two-thirds full with water and position the apparatus so that the end of the delivery tube is well immersed in the water.

D. Fill four test-tubes with water and stand them inverted in the trough. Also place the test-tube bungs, upside down, in the water.

E. Strongly heat the catalyst in the middle of the tube for a few minutes, until the glass is up to a dull red heat. Avoid heating the tube too close to the rubber bung.

F. While keeping the catalyst hot, flick the flame from time to time to the end of the tube for a few seconds to vaporise some of the liquid paraffin. Try to produce a steady stream of bubbles from the delivery tube. Be careful not to heat the liquid paraffin too strongly or let the catalyst cool down. To avoid suck-back do not remove the flame from heating the tube while gas is being collected. If suck-back looks as if it is about to occur, lift the whole apparatus by lifting the clamp stand.

G. When a steady stream of gas bubbles is established, collect four tubes full of gas by holding them over the Bunsen valve. Take care not to lift the water-filled tubes out of the water when moving them, to avoid letting air into them. Seal the full tubes by pressing them down on the bungs, then place them in a rack.

H. When gas collection is complete, first remove the delivery tube from the water by tilting or lifting the clamp stand. Only then stop heating.

I. Test the tubes of gas as follows:

  1. What does the gas look like? Carefully smell the contents of the first test-tube. Of what does the smell remind you? Does liquid paraffin have a smell?
  2. Use a lighted splint to see if the gas is flammable. The first tube may contain mostly air. If it does not ignite, try the second tube. Once the gas is lit, invert the test-tube to allow the heavier-than-air gas to flow out and burn.
  3. To the third tube of gas add 2 - 3 drops of bromine water, stopper and shake well.
  4. To the fourth tube add 2 - 3 drops of acidified potassium manganate(VII) solution, stopper and shake well.


This experiment has been adapted from Practical Chemistry: http://practicalchemistry.org/experiments/cracking-hydrocarbons,139,EX.html

Useful Resource

There are many web links, but few deal with this topic at a level appropriate to 14 - 18 chemistry teaching and learning - most are either far too technical or too elementary.

A discussion of the cracking of hydrocarbons for A-level chemistry students and teachers: http://www.chemguide.co.uk/organicprops/alkanes/cracking.html

A good overview of industrial processes for hydrocarbon cracking: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fluid_catalytic_cracking

To view a video clip of this experiment, go to: http://media.rsc.org/videoclips/demos/Crackingahydrocaron.mpg