Make: Projects – Pneumatic trough, part II

Education Science
Make: Projects – Pneumatic trough, part II
image from golden book of chemistry experiments page 28.jpg

Last week I wrote about how to construct a simple sheet metal “bridge,” which, in combination with an ice cube bucket and an olive jar, makes an effective pneumatic trough for collecting gas samples over water. This week I’m going to show you how to use this apparatus to generate and collect pure oxygen, and how to use that oxygen to observe the brilliant blue flame of sulfur oxidation.


As a general rule, flammable greases like petroleum jelly should not be exposed to pure oxygen. There is no appreciable danger in this experiment, which involves only a small volume of oxygen at atmospheric pressure in a container with a free lid, but if you are working with larger volumes of oxygen, oxygen under higher pressure (as in a cylinder), or (most emphatically) liquid oxygen, do not use grease or other readily oxidizable materials in constructing apparatus.



  • Pneumatic trough apparatus from part I
  • Small piece of plate glass (I used the mirror from a makeup compact)
  • Lighter
  • Twisted wire sample loop
  • 250 mL Erlenmeyer flask (I got mine from The Maker Shed)
  • #7 two-hole rubber stopper to fit Erlenmeyer (mine came from this assortment)
  • Two 80 mm lengths of 5 mm glass tubing to fit stopper (such as this)
  • Approximately 18″ length of 5/16″ OD x 3/16″ ID PVC tubing to fit glass tubing (common hardware store item)


  • Water to fill bucket
  • Elemental sulfur powder (also called “Flowers of Sulfur,” available at some drugstores and here.)
  • 3% hydrogen peroxide (common drugstore item)
  • Manganese dioxide (can be recovered from an alkaline dry-cell battery or purchased here)
  • Petroleum jelly (drugstore)

Step 1: Apply petroleum jelly to the rim of the jar


A bead of petroleum jelly around the rim of the jar, which I will refer to henceforth as the “column,” will ensure a tight seal against the plate glass lid once the gas has been collected.

Step 2: Prepare the stopper


Insert a length of glass tubing into each of the openings in a two-hole rubber stopper. Lubricating the outside of the pieces of tubing with a film of petroleum jelly can make this process easier. For safety’s sake, grip the tubing through a towel if you have to push on it very hard. Then cut two lengths of vinyl tubing, one about three inches long and one about 15 inches long, and fit them over the protruding ends of the glass tubing sections, as shown. The short vinyl tube serves as a valve which you can open or close as needed to control the flow of gas from the longer vinyl tube.

Step 3: Fill the column with water


The tray should be filled with water nearly to the rim. First, submerge the column in the free end of the tray, angling it upward enough to fill it completely with water and release all air bubbles from within.


Second, rotate the column underwater so that its open end is downward then raise it until the open end is just barely submerged beneath the water’s surface.


Third and finally, move the column over the bridge and screw the threads into place in the bridge’s aperture. The column should be completely filled with water, with no air bubbles.

Step 4: Prepare oxygen-generating reaction


First, pour about 150mL of 3% hydrogen peroxide into the Erlenmeyer flask. Exact measurements are not important.


Second, add about 1/4 tsp of manganese dioxide (about half the amount shown in the photo is plenty). Again, exact measurements are not important, although if you overdo the manganese dioxide the reaction can go too fast and possibly boil over. The reaction will begin immediately, and will generate some heat.


Insert the two-hole stopper, prepared as above, into the neck of the Erlenmeyer flask. Get a good seal, but don’t push it down too hard.

Step 5: Fill the column with oxygen


Let the reaction run for a couple of seconds to clear residual atmospheric gases from the headspace in the flask and from the tubing, then pinch off the short length of tubing by folding it over between your fingers. Direct the open end of the longer length of tubing into the water below the column, so that the bubbles rise into the volume of the column itself, displacing the water therein. Continue until the bubbles spill out around the bottom of the column. Release the short end of the tubing and set the flask aside, allowing the reaction to go to completion. The excess oxygen may be safely released into the atmosphere.

Step 6: Seal and remove the column


Insert the plate glass cover into the water bath and position it against the submerged rim of the glass. Here’s where the petroleum jelly does its thing, sealing the rim of the jar against the surface of the glass.


Lift the glass, bridge, and column out of the water together, tilt them to drain off any puddles, and then invert them and set them upright on the bench. You now have a jar of pure oxygen.

Step 7: Confirm the presence of oxygen

I used the combustion of elemental sulfur to confirm the presence of an enriched oxygen atmosphere, because its brilliant blue combustion is quite beautiful. You can also use a piece of smoldering broomstraw, which still burns impressively under these conditions. If you use sulfur, be sure that your workspace is well-ventilated, as the sulfur dioxide generated in the process is fairly acrid. An MSDS for sulfur dioxide can be found here.


Load a pinch of powdered sulfur onto your wire loop. Moistening the loop can help if you have problems recovering a good amount from the bottle.


Heat the sulfur sample in the flame of a butane lighter. The sulfur will turn black and smolder but may not actually ignite. Now, quickly remove the plate glass cover on the gas column and insert the smoldering end of the wire loop. If you’ve done everything right, you will be treated to a beautiful blue flare. Again, be sure your work area is well ventilated and do not inhale the sulfur dioxide smoke that results.

Notes and ideas

Wear gloves and goggles beginning at step 4. Familiarize yourself with the safety profile of manganese dioxide by reading the MSDS here.

The oxygen generating-reaction is as follows:

decomposition of hydrogen peroxide.png

The only products are water and oxygen. Manganese dioxide is present as a catalyst, meaning it is neither consumed nor created during the course of the reaction, and is added only to accelerate the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide. That means it can be preserved and reused indefinitely. To recover it, pour the contents of the Erlenmeyer flask, and any washings that contain the black manganese dioxide powder, into an evaporating dish or shallow, wide-mouth jar. Then just set it aside in a window and/or in front of a fan and let the water evaporate away. The dry manganese dioxide that remains can be reused more-or-less indefinitely. If you’re impatient, you can filter the manganese dioxide out of the water using a coffee filter to speed the whole process up.

For more science tutorials and projects, visit the Make: Science Room

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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