Melting Pennies

melted penny

I am fascinated by the chemistry of pennies. Dissolving a penny in nitric acid is one of the most visually stimulating chemistry reactions I have ever seen. The combination of a bubbling green solution and noxious brown gas that changes the color of an acid base indicator enlivens any discussion on redox chemistry.

Likewise, the golden penny experiment is pretty cool, too. In this experiment, a penny is plated a penny with a silvery zinc coat that subsequently turns a golden color when heated. There are a large number of other chemistry experiments that use pennies. Erica Posthuma-Adams recently described a boat building experiment in which students design and build boats; pennies are used as weights to test each boat’s seaworthiness. Finding the density of pennies is another classic chemistry experiment.

My favorite penny experiment is melting pennies. It is simple to conduct and it can be used to discuss a variety of chemistry topics. Check out the video below.



I would love to learn more about the chemistry of pennies and other coins. If you have any experiments to share, I would enjoy hearing from you.

You can find out more about the composition of pennies as well as more experiments to do with pennies in the Journal of Chemical Education. A small sample of articles on pennies is listed below.


N. C. Thomas and S. Faulk, A Simple Penny AnalysisJournal of Chemical Education, 2008 85 (6), 817. (accessed 2/13/19)

R. F. Mauldin, Introducing Scientific Reasoning with the Penny LabJournal of Chemical Education 1997 74 (8), 952. (accessed 2/13/19)

I. A. Leenson, More Experiments in the Penny LabJournal of Chemical Education, 1998 75 (11), 1362. (accessed 2/13/19)

P. D. McCormick, Chem 13 News Digest: BrassJournal of Chemical Education, 1975 52 (2), 102. (accessed 2/13/19)

J. M. Miller, Analysis of 1982 PenniesJournal of Chemical Education, 1983 60 (2), 142. (accessed 2/13/19)






General Safety

For Laboratory Work: Please refer to the ACS Guidelines for Chemical Laboratory Safety in Secondary Schools (2016).  

For Demonstrations: Please refer to the ACS Division of Chemical Education Safety Guidelines for Chemical Demonstrations.

Other Safety resources

RAMP: Recognize hazards; Assess the risks of hazards; Minimize the risks of hazards; Prepare for emergencies


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Comments 12

Andres Tretiakov's picture
Andres Tretiakov | Wed, 08/27/2014 - 04:22

Hi Tom,

here are a couple of more ideas. I'm sure you must be aware or tried them before.


Copper pennies as catalyst for the oxidation of propanone (acetone)

British copper pennies are used instead (pre-1980) or the modern ones which are made of steel and copper plated.

Copper pennies as catalyst for the oxidation of propanone (acetone)

British copper pennies are used instead (pre-1980) or the modern ones which are made of steel and copper plated.


Easy to prepare and you do not need an oxygen gas supply. You do need on the other hand a dark room to be able to see the bright glow on the penny. 

Next one is how to turn copper pennies black using calcium or sodium polysulfide

Calcium or sodium polysulfide can be prepared by heating a dilute solution of calcium or sodium hydroxide and adding elemental flower of sulfur powder little by little until the solution turns red in colour. Then simply add the penny and leave for a couple of minutes. I believe the penny gets a coat of copper sulfide which is black; you can confirm this by scratching the surface and the copper should be visible underneath. I'm not sure if this is what happens and other tests should be carried out to confirm this.

I have a photo with the different pennies (silver, gold and black) but I cannot insert it here.

Hope this helps,










Tom Kuntzleman's picture
Tom Kuntzleman | Thu, 08/28/2014 - 11:00

Andres,Thank your for alerting me to these experiments.  The video is quite helpful.  I will be getting in the lab to try these out...

Bob Worley's picture
Bob Worley | Wed, 09/03/2014 - 00:19

More from the across the pond where we do like to spend a penny!

There is an experiment carried out on pennies which involves coating the surface with zinc. In many protocols this involves boiling 6M sodium hydroxide solution containing zinc powder and then adding a clean penny. This is a very hazardous process as you can imagine. Well it works with 1M sodium hydroxide but it is still not pleasant.

There is a less hazardous process to making copper appear “silver”. This involves electroplating the copper coin with zinc. The anode of zinc and electrolyte is and alkaline solution of zinc sulfate(VI), ie sodium zincate, at room temperature. This is extremely rapid and can watched on CLEAPSS video,

If you pass the zinc-coated copper coin through a Bunsen flame, the zinc melts into the copper to make a brass surface and looks like gold; the chemist’s dream.

Bob Worley in London

Tom Kuntzleman's picture
Tom Kuntzleman | Thu, 09/04/2014 - 13:03

Great experiment, Bob!  I will be soon trying out this experiment you have shared. 

In the video you shared, it looks as though the 6V DC power source is capable of generating a pretty high current.  What current is necessary to generate a good zinc plate on the copper?  I ask because I'm wondering if batteries purchased from a grocery store could be used as the DC power source to plate the zinc.

Thanks for sharing this with us!

Andres Tretiakov's picture
Andres Tretiakov | Thu, 09/04/2014 - 05:28

Hi Bob and Tom,

I found this even less hazardous procedure for the alchemy pennies experiment. Instead of using highly corrosive 6 M sodium hydroxide and zinc powder/dust or mossy zinc, you can use 1 M zinc chloride solution and zinc granules. You can quickly clean the pennies with vinegar and salt first to facilitate proper plating of the brass alloys.

Over a hot plate heat 25 ml of 1 M zinc chloride with 1 g of zinc granules. When it starts boiling, and using tongs immerse two pennies in the mixture until they appear silver. Use the tongs to remove the pennies and dip them into a beaker filled with distilled water. Rinse and shine with paper towels. Different brass alloys have different colours according to the content of zinc and copper metals. The resulting silver colour of the brass alloy pennies contains more than 45 % zinc. When the zinc-coated penny is heated, it turns gold in colour due to another change occuring in the brass alloy.

Here ia a photo:

Hope this helps,



David Allan | Thu, 09/04/2014 - 18:29

When discussing the changes in penny composition in the US, I like to use a pair of scissors to cut a new penny in half. The zinc core is readily seen a a bright, silvery center. Then, I like to dissolve the zinc with some HCl (doesn't have to be very concentrated), leaving behind the very thin copper veneer. The scissors I use can be purchased at a hardware store. They have serrated blades that hold the penny in place and keep it from sliding down the scissor blades.Here is a link to suitable scissors at

Tom Kuntzleman's picture
Tom Kuntzleman | Thu, 09/18/2014 - 13:33

Sorry for the late reply Dave.  This is a great idea.  My classes have been doing penny density experiments this week, and we've been fiddling around with the chemistry of pennies as well.

Bob Worley's picture
Bob Worley | Fri, 09/05/2014 - 01:42

The secret of electroplating is to have a small concentration of cations available for plating but good conductivity. This is achieved by complexing the metal with a ligand but with the equilibrium constant well the complex side of the equation. I must admit to my surprise when this worked first time. You will see a lot of bubbling at the cathode as well. This is hydrogen. I used a 9v battery for this. (Gold plating is achieved with the cyanide ion as the ligand but other methods are preferred to bypass the toxic nature of hydrogen cyanide – please don’t try this.)

Brassificaton is a little hit and miss but the message is to pass the metal steadily through the hot flame, not too slowly and not too fast.

Our group at CLEAPSS ( are primarily involved in safety in school science and DT but our aim is to enable practical work to be carried out not to go about banning it. With chemicals, we take the MSDS and make it relevant for school teaching. Our work is encouraged by the Health & Safety Executive,

Many schools had done nickel electroplating but Information from Europe was now demanding some pretty nasty hazard warnings on nickel compounds. The main concern was that it can cause cancer by inhalation and we had to be careful of inhaling aerosols. The risk is very, very small and is only found in badly organised nickel plating factories but when people see these warnings the shutters go up and chemophobia sets in. Our safety regulations suggest we look for less harmful alternatives and despite the solution being quite caustic, teachers understand that hazard better. Nickel compounds are involved in allergic reactions as well. So I looked for a simple complexing reaction and for once, hit the button first time.


Tom Kuntzleman's picture
Tom Kuntzleman | Thu, 09/18/2014 - 13:38

Bob, thanks for your safety insight on this experiment.  It would be nice for many of us that teach chemistry to be more connected with those of you that know a lot about the hazards associated with certain experiments.  Thank you so much for your insight into this particular experiment.  I look forward to hearing more from you in the future.

joanne gervais | Thu, 09/18/2014 - 16:38

comment to Bob...Brassification. Are you electroplating the copper with a zinc solution, heating it in an open flame and then throwing it in water? This may be  an alternative to coating pennies with zinc dust in 3 M sodium hydroxide. What have you tried? Why are the results hit and miss?

Dave Gervais

Bob Worley's picture
Bob Worley | Sat, 09/20/2014 - 10:03


I will try and answer the question in reverse order. The hit and miss reference is to passing the zinc plated copper through a flame. Go though too quickly and the temperature is not hot enough to melt the zinc into the layer of copper to form brass on the surface; this gives the “gold” effect. Heat it for a long time in the flame and oxidation takes place of the metals.

The original method of adding the copper to zinc powder in boiling 1 to 6 M sodium hydroxide solution (I have seen and used all concentrations) is rather not very pleasant. In fact the experiment will even work in acid solutions but the zinc powder forms a ball and the result on the copper is patchy. The important thing is to have the zinc powder in contact with the copper.

If you read the previous notes in this thread, I was looking for a replacement for nickel plating for school students in the UK to do, discovered that I could electroplate with zinc and then remembered the gold coin experiment and just put them together.

I hope that helps. There is a video on and some of my ideas are on

All the best and be careful of Halloween over there!


Meg Young | Wed, 02/03/2016 - 08:14

Try heating a nickel red hot in the bunsen burner and then dropping it in 70% rubbing alcohol.  The copper will appear on the outside of the nickel. 


The composition of the 5-cent piece is a homogeneous alloy containing 75% copper and 25% nickel.  This activity makes the copper content of a nickel alloy visible.  Other alloys can also be tested using this same technique.



One nickel, small amount of isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol, tongs, Bunsen burner.



1.  Heat the nickel in the Bunsen burner flame until it starts to turn red.

2.  Drop the coin into a shallow dish of isopropyl alcohol.

3.  Allow to cool.  Remove the coin from the alcohol and the surface is now copper instead of the usual nickel color.



     Nickels in the United States are made from an alloy of copper and nickel.  If the nickel were made from solid nickel metal, the coin would be magnetic.  When the alloy of copper and nickel is heated in the flame then quickly quenched in the alcohol, the nickel metal goes into solution while the copper remains behind.  This demonstration is a crude test for the presence of copper in a nickel alloy.

     This activity will not work with a penny because it is made with a zinc slug in the middle and copper foil on the outside.  Be careful that students don’t heat the penny because the zinc will melt and come out.  The zinc can clog the Bunsen burner.



1.  Where does the copper come from?

2.  What type of reaction could take place between the alcohol and the nickel alloy?

3.  Why are combinations of metals better than the pure metal?

4.  How could you turn the nickel back to its original color?