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Turn Water into Wine - Science or Magic?

As a college student studying science, I clearly remember the day my physics professor walked out in front of the class to perform the classic "Table Cloth Trick" demonstration. He had a small dining table set with a nice tablecloth, fine china dishes and wine glasses. We all knew he was going to grab the tablecloth and pull it quickly, leaving the dishes perfectly in place on the table (a perfect example of Newtons First Law: the Law of Inertia [wikipedia]). But what he did before he pulled the tablecloth is what caught my attention the most: He held a wine bottle and a pitcher of clear water, then poured the water into the wine bottle as he explained physics to the class. When he went to fill the wine glasses with the wine bottle (which he had just filled with clear water), it came out as reddish-pink wine! He stopped pouring, looked up at the class with a smirk and said, "Not bad for a Mormon boy..."

This was a turning point for me in college because I watched this man steal the attention of 300 college students and throw in a subtle line about "turning water into wine" and then pull the tablecloth off the table leaving every dish in tact - all to teach about one fundamental physics law. To me, the showmanship and the story were brilliant. I found myself signing up for a teaching class the next semester and ultimately I ended up becoming a high school science teacher. Now, I get to steal the attention of my students by turning water into wine, lemonade, soda, milk and Pepto-Bismol using the principles of chemistry.

How to turn water into wine - Science demonstration

This demonstration requires a lot of preparation but once the solutions are made they will last a long time and the impact on learning is worth all of the effort.


Barium nitrate solution - saturated Ba(NO3)2 - 10ml *

Phenolphthalein solution 1% - 5 drops *

Sodium hydroxide solution - 0.1 M NaOH - 10 drops *

Sodium hydroxide solution - 6 M NaOH - 10 drops *

Sulfuric acid solution - 9 M H2SO4 - 1.5ml *

Distilled (deionized) water - 200ml

Glasses (water, high ball, chalice, wine)

*Instructions for Preparation of Solutions

How to prepare a saturated barium nitrate solution:

Add 100 ml distilled water to a heat resistant container or beaker. Heat the water gently while slowly adding barium nitrate crystals. Stir constantly. Continue to add a small amount of barium nitrate crystals until no more will dissolve into the water and you can see some crystals remaining at the bottom, this is how you know it is saturated (this may take some time so be patient). Allow to cool and store in a plastic bottle. Makes 100 ml.

How to prepare a 1% phenolphthalein solution:

Purchase 1% solution here but it is much cheaper to mix your own from powder. To make your own, add 1g phenolphthalein powder to a solution of 50ml ethanol and 50ml distilled water. Mix. Makes 100ml. Store in a plastic bottle.

How to prepare a 0.1 M sodium hydroxide solution:

Add .4 grams sodium hydroxide to 1000 ml distilled water (or .04 grams sodium hydroxide to 100 ml distilled water). Mix. Store in a plastic bottle. The "M" stands for Molar, it is an expression of the concentration of sodium hydroxide in the solution. If you don't want to make your own you may purchase a 1M mixed solution here but this must be diluted by adding 10 ml 1M solution to 90ml of distilled water to make a .1M solution.

How to prepare a 6 M sodium hydroxide solution:

Add 240 grams sodium hydroxide to 1 Liter of distilled water (or 24 grams sodium hydroxide to 100 ml distilled water) in a borosilicate beaker. Mix. Store in a plastic container. Note: sodium hydroxide is caustic and is very harmful at this concentration. Wear gloves, safety goggles and apron.

How to prepare a 9 M sulfuric acid solution:

Add 50 ml concentrated sulfuric acid solution to 50 ml distilled water. Be sure to purchase clear acid with no dyes or you won't be able to see color changes during the demonstration. Sulfuric acid mixing is extremely dangerous, follow these instructions carefully - use a borosilicate beaker and wear gloves, goggles and apron: Start with 50 ml distilled water in the beaker and slowly add a small amount of the measured sulfuric acid to the water - it will boil if added too quickly. Continue to add until mixed. Always remember this chemistry rhyme "Do as you otta, add acid to water", otherwise you will have acid splashing into your face.

Preparation of glasses

Glass #1 - Water: 200 mL distilled (deionized) water and 5 drops phenolphthalein solution

Glass #2 - Wine: 10 drops of 0.1M sodium hydroxide solution

Glass #3 - Lemonade: 1.5 ml of 9 M sulfuric acid solution and a lemon wedge

Glass #4 - Soda: 1 g of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), mix with 3 ml water to dissolve

Glass #5 - Milk: 9 ml of saturated barium nitrate solution

Glass #6 - Pepto-Bismol: 6 ml of 6 M sodium hydroxide solution

Turning Water into Wine Demonstration

This is where you get to be creative with your presentation and really capture the attention of your audience. Watch the video above for one example of how to present this demonstration.

Pour glass #1 into glass #2 while you tell your story. Continue to pour the mixture into each glass, in order, to see how the reactions cause the solution to change.

The science of the water into wine demonstration

  • Glass #1 - Water and phenolphthalein solution is colorless and no reaction occurs

  • Glass #2 - Sodium hydroxide is basic which causes phenolphthalein to turn pink

  • Glass #3 - Sulfuric acid is acidic which causes phenolphthalein to turn back to a colorless solution

  • Glass #4 - Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) reacts with the acidic solution to produce carbon dioxide gas bubbles. NaHCO3 + H+ →Na+ +H2O+CO2

  • Glass #5 - barium nitrate breaks apart to release barium which reacts with the sulfate from the sulfuric acid to produce barium sulfate - a white precipitate.

  • Glass #6 - Sodium hydroxide is basic which causes the phenolphthalein to turn pink, which resembles Pepto-Bismol

This demonstration is a great way to engage an audience or classroom and includes many acid/base color changes and several chemical reactions, each of which are important concepts in chemistry. And, as with any of the demonstrations that appear to be magical, I like to remind my students that turning water into wine into milk is not actually magic, it is science!

Keep on Learning! ~Craig


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