Chemical garden

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Comparison of chemical gardens grown by NASA scientists on the International Space Station (left) and on the ground (right)
A chemical garden while growing
Cobalt(II) chloride
A chemical garden

A chemical garden is a set of complex biological-looking structures created by mixing inorganic chemicals. This experiment in chemistry is usually performed by adding metal salts, such as copper sulfate or cobalt(II) chloride, to an aqueous solution of sodium silicate (otherwise known as waterglass). This results in the growth of plant-like forms in minutes to hours.[1][2][3][4]

The chemical garden was first observed and described by Johann Rudolf Glauber in 1646.[5] In its original form, the chemical garden involved the introduction of ferrous chloride (FeCl2) crystals into a solution of potassium silicate (K2SiO3).


The chemical garden relies on most transition metal silicates being insoluble in water and colored.

When a metal salt, such as cobalt chloride, is added to a sodium silicate solution, it will start to dissolve. It will then form insoluble cobalt silicate by a double displacement reaction. This cobalt silicate is a semipermeable membrane. Because the ionic strength of the cobalt solution inside the membrane is higher than the sodium silicate solution's, which forms the bulk of the tank contents, osmotic effects will increase the pressure within the membrane. This will cause the membrane to tear, forming a hole. The cobalt cations will react with the silicate anions at this tear to form a new solid. In this way, growths will form in the tanks; they will be colored (according to the metal cation) and may look like plant-like structures.

The usual upward direction of growth depends on the density of the fluid inside the semi-permeable membrane of the "plant" being lower than that of the surrounding waterglass solution. If one uses a metal salt that produces a very dense fluid inside the membrane, the growth is downward. For example, a green solution of trivalent chromium sulfate or chloride refuses to crystallize without slowly changing into the violet form[clarification needed], even if boiled until it concentrates into a tarry mass. That tar, if suspended in the waterglass solution, forms downward twig-like growths. This is because all the fluid inside the membrane is too dense to float and thereby exerts a downward force. The concentration of sodium silicate becomes important in growth rate.

After the growth has ceased, the sodium silicate solution can be removed by a continuous addition of water at a very slow rate. This prolongs the life of the garden.[6]

In one specific experimental variation, researchers produced the chemical garden with a single growth "tube".[7]

Common salts used[edit]

Common salts used in a chemical garden include:[8]

Practical uses[edit]

While at first the chemical garden may appear to be primarily a toy, some serious work has been done on the subject.[3] For instance, this chemistry is related to the setting of Portland cement, the formation of hydrothermal vents, and during the corrosion of steel surfaces on which insoluble tubes can be formed.

The nature of the growth of the insoluble silicate tubes formed within chemical gardens is also useful in understanding classes of related behavior seen in fluids separated by membranes. In various ways, the growth of the silicate tubes resembles the growth of spikes or blobs of ice extruded above the freezing surface of still water,[9] the patterns of growth of gum drying as it drips from wounds in trees such as Eucalyptus, and the way molten wax forms twig-like growths, either dripping from a candle, or floating up through cool water.[citation needed]


If the conditions are good, chemical gardens can also occur in nature. There is evidence from paleontology, that such chemical gardens may fossilize. Such pseudofossils can be very difficult to distinguish from fossilized organisms. Indeed, some of the earliest purported fossils of life might be fossilized chemical gardens.[10]

Mixing iron-rich particles with alkaline liquids containing the chemicals silicate or carbonate have created biological-looking structures. Such structures may appear to be biological and/or fossils.[11][12][13] According to researchers, "Chemical reactions like these have been studied for hundreds of years but they had not previously been shown to mimic these tiny iron-rich structures inside rocks. These results call for a re-examination of many ancient real-world examples to see if they are more likely to be fossils or non-biological mineral deposits."[11][12]

One use of the study of chemical gardening is to be better able to distinguish biological structures, including fossils, from non-biological structures on the planet Mars.[11][12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barge, Laura M.; et al. (26 August 2015). "From Chemical Gardens to Chemobrionics". Chemical Reviews. 115 (16): 8652–8703. doi:10.1021/acs.chemrev.5b00014. hdl:20.500.11824/172. ISSN 0009-2665. PMID 26176351.
  2. ^ Balköse, D.; Özkan, F.; Köktürk, U.; Ulutan, S.; Ülkü, S.; Nişli, G. (2002). "Characterization of Hollow Chemical Garden Fibers from Metal Salts and Water Glass" (PDF). Journal of Sol-Gel Science and Technology. 23 (3): 253. doi:10.1023/A:1013931116107. hdl:11147/4652. S2CID 54973427.
  3. ^ a b Cartwright, J; García-Ruiz, Juan Manuel; Novella, María Luisa; Otálora, Fermín (2002). "Formation of Chemical Gardens". Journal of Colloid and Interface Science. 256 (2): 351. Bibcode:2002JCIS..256..351C. CiteSeerX doi:10.1006/jcis.2002.8620.
  4. ^ Thouvenel-Romans, S; Steinbock, O (April 2003). "Oscillatory growth of silica tubes in chemical gardens" (PDF). Journal of the American Chemical Society. 125 (14): 4338–41. doi:10.1021/ja0298343. ISSN 0002-7863. PMID 12670257. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 August 2017. Retrieved 23 May 2009.
  5. ^ Glauber, Johann Rudolf (1646). "Wie man in diesem Liquore von allen Metallen in wenig Stunden Bäume mit Farben soll wachsen machen." [How one shall make grow—in this solution, from all metals, in a few hours—trees with color]. Furni Novi Philosophici (German-language 1661 ed.). Amsterdam: Johan Jansson. pp. 186–189.
  6. ^ Helmenstine, Anne Marie (16 March 2019). "Magic Rocks". Archived from the original on 16 May 2020. Retrieved 16 May 2020.
  7. ^ Glaab, F.; Kellermeier, M.; Kunz, W.; Morallon, E.; García-Ruiz, J. M. (2012). "Formation and Evolution of Chemical Gradients and Potential Differences Across Self-Assembling Inorganic Membranes". Angewandte Chemie International Edition. 51 (18): 4317–4321. doi:10.1002/anie.201107754. PMID 22431259.
  8. ^ Pimentel C, Zheng M, Cartwright JH, Sainz-Díaz CI (15 February 2023). "Chemobrionics Database: Categorisation of Chemical Gardens According to the Nature of the Anion, Cation and Experimental Procedure". ChemSystemsChem. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: e202300002. doi:10.1002/syst.202300002. hdl:10481/81351. S2CID 256932493. Retrieved 16 March 2023.
  9. ^ Carter, James R. "Ice Formations with Daily (Diurnal) Freeze/Thaw Cycles". Illinois State University. Archived from the original on 26 November 2017. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
  10. ^ McMahon, Sean (2020). "Earth's earliest and deepest purported fossils may be iron-mineralized chemical gardens". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 286 (1916). doi:10.1098/rspb.2019.2410. PMC 6939263. PMID 31771469.
  11. ^ a b c University of Edinburgh (27 November 2019). "Solving fossil mystery could aid quest for ancient life on Mars". EurekAlert!. Retrieved 27 November 2019.
  12. ^ a b c McMahon, Sean (27 November 2019). "Earth's earliest and deepest purported fossils may be iron-mineralized chemical gardens". Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 286 (1916). doi:10.1098/rspb.2019.2410. PMC 6939263. PMID 31771469.
  13. ^ Steinbock, Oliver; et al. (1 March 2019). "The fertile physics of chemical gardens". Physics Today. 69 (3): 44. doi:10.1063/PT.3.3108.

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