Reaction Rates and Catalysts in Ethanol Production (1 Activity)

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5-8, 9-12




Students will have the opportunity to investigate alternative catalysts for the degradation of hydrogen peroxide, which will be used as a model system for the breaking down of cellulose into sugar. After identifying other potential catalysts, students will develop their own research question about catalysts and conduct an additional experiment of their own design to investigate their question.

This lesson involves a system similar to one used in the production of ethanol, and it also gives students the opportunity to conduct research in a manner similar to that of research scientists. The use of the scientific method and the presentation of research is emphasized. This module can be used later in the school year as a lead-in to equilibrium because it introduces the idea of reaction rates and activation energy. Parts of this module would also fit in with lessons on polymers or simply on qualitative/quantitative observations. The activities are:

  • Introduction to reaction rates and catalysts
  • Alternative catalysts for a model decomposition reaction
  • Further investigation of catalysts and reaction rates


Plan Time

5 class periods

  • Three percent hydrogen peroxide
  • Microwell plates
  • Pipettes
  • Manganese dioxide
  • A variety of other possible catalysts (such as zinc oxide, copper oxide, sugar, salts, sand, other manganese compounds, etc.)
  • Access to computers with Excel and PowerPoint or similar software
  • Test tubes
  • Hot plates
  • Ice baths
  • Any other equipment needed for independent student experiments.

National Standards: 9-12

  • SEC-A: 1.b. Design and conduct scientific investigations.
  • SEC-B: 3.d. A large number of important reactions involve the transfer of electrons or hydrogen ions. In other reactions, chemical bonds are broken by heat or light to form very reactive radicals with electrons ready to form new bonds. Radical reactions control many processes such as the presence of ozone and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, burning and processing of fossil fuels, the formation of polymers, and explosions.
  • SEC-E: 2.c. Creativity, imagination, and a good knowledge base are required in science and engineering.
  • SEC-E: 2.d. Science and technology are pursued for different purposes. Scientific inquiry is driven by the desire to understand the natural world, and technological design by the need to meet human need and solve human problems.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory

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