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Why do objects that are the same size sometimes have different weights? The answer has to do with their density. An object's density is determined by comparing its mass to its volume. If you compare a rock and a cork that are the same size (they have equal volume), which is heavier? The rock is, because it has more mass. The rock is denser than the cork, then, because it has more mass in the same volume - this is due to the atomic structure of the elements, molecules, and compounds that make it up.
Liquids have density, too. You can perform several experiments with different types of liquids to determine which is more dense. These experiments can make a good science fair project; use them as a foundation and then come up with your own ideas of what to test.
Question & hypothesis: Will a raisin, paperclip, penny, small cork, ball of paper, and other small objects sink or float if they are placed in water, corn syrup and vegetable oil? Write down what you think will happen when you place each object into the three different liquids.
What You Do:
Conclusions: Were your predictions right? Did the raisins and other objects sink and float when you expected them to? Did they float in one liquid and sink in another? Why do you think they acted the way they did?
The denser a liquid is, the easier it is for an object to float on it. If one of your objects floated in the corn syrup but sank in the water, what does that tell you about the densities of water and corn syrup? Take the experiment a step further to find out more.
Question & hypothesis: Which is the most dense: water, corn syrup, or vegetable oil? Which is the least dense? Based on your results from experiment #1, predict which liquid you think is the most dense and which you think is the least dense.
What You Do:
Conclusions: Was your prediction right? If so, the liquid you thought was densest should be at the bottom of the jar. The next dense will float on top of that, and the least dense will float at the very top.
Now you know how the densities of the three liquids compare to each other. If you want to find out the approximate density of each, you can calculate it using this formula: Density = Mass/Volume. On Earth we measure mass (how much of a substance there is) by calculating weight (how heavy it is). Weigh each liquid in grams (make sure you subtract the weight of the beaker!) and then divide that number by the volume (number of milliliters) of the liquid. The answer is density in grams per milliliter. (Your answer will be more exact if you use a graduated cylinder instead of a beaker to measure the volume and weigh the liquid.)
Click here to continue your density experiments.
The study of density is very important if you sail the high seas! A ship is built to float because its average density is less than the density of water. (Even though it is made out of very dense materials, like steel, most of its volume is actually filled with air, because ships are hollow on the inside. This lowers the average density.) But what about submarines? They can float or sink, and they can remain steady at any depth they want! Have you ever wondered how they do that?
Submarines are built with special tanks called ballast tanks. When the submarine is on the surface, these tanks are filled with air, which makes the average density of the sub less than the density of water. If the submarine needs to dive, the sailors flood the tanks with water from the ocean. Since water is much denser than air, this increases the average density of the submarine. As soon as the sub's density is more than the water's, the sub will sink.
So what prevents the submarine from diving all the way down to the ocean floor? When the sub reaches the correct depth, its density is adjusted by changing the amount of air or water in secondary tanks called trim tanks. When these tanks have the right balance of air and water, the submarine's average density equals that of the surrounding water, so it will neither float nor sink.
Try it out with a plastic drink bottle in the sink or bathtub. If the bottle is empty (filled with air), it will float on the surface. If you fill the bottle with water, its density will increase and it will sink. Can you figure out how much water should be in the bottle to make your "submarine" stay at a steady depth in the water?
The Navy has to keep track of the salinity of seawater (how much salt is in it) because salt makes water more dense. Changing water density could cause a submarine to rise or fall unexpectedly. Try putting your bottle submarine in a sink full of salt water. Do you need to add more fresh water to the bottle to make it stay at a steady depth than you did when the sink had fresh water in it? This test helps you see the higher density of seawater, but a real sub doesn't have to add fresh water to the ballast tanks - it just fills up with the higher density salt water.
Forget the life jacket. The Dead Sea contains the saltiest water on earth, which is also the densest water found naturally on earth! You don't need flotation devices if you are swimming in the Dead Sea. Your body's density is already much less than the water's, so the only thing you can do is float higher than you ever would in fresh water!
Freeze and float. Most liquids contract when they freeze, making them more dense in their solid form than in their liquid form. (They have the same mass, but it's packed into a smaller volume.) Water does the opposite: it expands as it freezes, lowering the density. Since ice is less dense than water, it floats. And it's a good thing it does! If water acted like most other liquids, lakes and rivers would freeze solid and all life in them would die. Instead, a layer of ice forms on the surface, leaving liquid water underneath.
Learn about the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and find ISEF-affiliated science fairs in your area.
See inside a submarine on PBS's Nova site.