Make a Spectrometer for Chemistry

Imagine a world in which fire, air, water, and earth were considered ‘the elements’.

A world in which we didn’t know about oxygen or the role it plays.

When people scoffed at the idea of atoms or tiny things you couldn’t see.

Sounds much different than what we know and see today, right?

But this was the world not so many years ago!

People have been practicing some form of chemistry for tens of thousands of years. But chemistry looks much different now.

However, this isn’t a chemistry history lesson.

I specifically want to discuss when we started isolating elements.

One method scientists used to determine what element they were looking at was by burning the element. It would produce color and they could tell which element it was based on the color.

However, that method had its flaws. Specifically, some elements have very similar color signatures.

So Robert Bunsen (yes, as in Bunsen burner) developed a spectroscope. The first spectroscopes used a prism to refract light which separates the light into a color spectrum.

Each element has it’s own specific color spectrum, kind of like a fingerprint.

If you just thought about rainbows then you’re on the right track. Spectroscopes are essentially producing rainbows.

We made a spectrometer and it was so awesome to go around testing different types of light to see the difference.

Make your chemistry lessons hands on with this DIY spectrometer!

How to Make Your Very Own Spectrometer

Materials needed:

  • A Box (shoebox would work well. Just make sure it’s big enough to have a full CD taped to one side on the inside)
  • Toilet paper tube or paper towel tube. If you really don’t have one you can make a tube out of thick paper.
  • CD that can be ruined.
  • Duct tape
  • Thick paper like cardstock, business cards, etc.

Time needed: 20 minutes.

How to Make a Spectrometer

  1. Cut the viewfinder

    You need to cut 2 holes into the box. First, trace the end of your toilet paper tube on one side of the box. Then trade the toilet paper tube again slightly to the side.
    We want to tube to go in at an angle so by tracing it twice you’ll make an oval.
    Cut out the oval and make sure the toilet paper tube fits in the oval hole at an angle.

  2. Cut the slit for the light source.

    You need to cut a rectangle for the light to pass through.
    Your toilet paper tube should look in at the side where the CD will be located
    Your light source will come from the opposite end of the box than the CD.
    Use the following model to determine where to cut your holes.

  3. Add the paper for the light source

    We have to create a small opening for the light so the light will be refracted.
    Use two business cards or two pieces of card stock to make a smaller slit for the light.
    Do your best to make sure both ends of the slight are the same width.

  4. Remove the label from your CD

    If your CD has a label on it, you need to remove it. It makes for a cleaner image.
    Start by using your fingernail to pick at the label. This breaks the seal and helps the duct tape lift the label.
    Next, cover the entire label side of the CD with duct tape.
    Slowly pull the tape from one side to remove the label.

  5. Attach the CD in the box

    Next, we are attaching the CD to the inside of the box.
    The CD should be located directly across from the rectangle slit for the light source.
    Do your best to line up one side of the CD with the slit for the light.

  6. Tape the toilet paper tube.

    Put the toilet paper tube in the oval hole and tape it in place (if needed).

  7. Tape up the box

    This is sort of optional. I didn’t tape ours at first because I wanted to be able to move the CD around if necessary.
    We were able to just hold the sides shut.
    Just ensure that no ambient light is getting in from elsewhere.

  8. Position the light

    Shine a light through your light source and peek in through the viewfinder to see your color spectrum!

Having Fun with Your New Spectrometer

Here are some fun ways we are using our spectrometers

  • Shine different lights in
    • Flashlights
    • Blacklights
    • Sunlight
    • Car headlight
    • Test bulbs with different wattage
  • Use cellophane or other translucent items to shine lights through
  • Compare fluorescent, incandescent, LED, and halogen light sources

Watch the Tutorial Instead

Sometimes it’s easier and clearer to watch tutorials instead of reading about them. I decided to video the 2nd spectrometer we made to share with everyone!

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