Colors, Part I: Absorption

Learning goals: work collaboratively with a lab partner, collect and analyze experimental data, formulate a logical conclusion based on experimental data

Note: Plan on dressing in old clothes for this lab. These dyes are powerful and may permanently stain your clothes if you splash or drip them on yourself.


Color vision provides a window into everyday chemistry. For example, the leaves change color in autumn, indicating the changing chemistry in the tree: the chlorophylls are breaking down and the tree is preparing for the winter. Tree leaf pigments absorb some wavelengths of light more than others, which is what imparts the color you see. Less commonly, pigments can emit light; one example is a fluorescent highlighter marker. In this two-week lab, you will learn about the chemical basis of color for both absorptive and emissive colored chemicals.

In today’s lab, you will measure the absorption of several food dyes, then measure the absorption of a sample of an artificially colored food or beverage of your choice. By comparing the absorption of your sample to the absorption of the food dye standards, you should be able to identify the dye(s) in your sample, although probably with some uncertainty.



Colored chemicals absorb and/or emit light in the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, which has a wavelength of approximately 400 – 700 nm. The color of the absorbed or emitted light depends on the amount of energy the chemical absorbed or emitted. Wavelength and energy are negatively correlated.

Absorption occurs when an electron in a chemical absorbs energy from the light, temporarily promoting the electron to a higher energy orbital. Light emission can occur when an electron relaxes back to the ground state and produces light, but emission is less common than absorption because there are many of non-radiative ways for the electron to relax.

Most chemicals are colored because they absorb light and reflect only a portion of incident light. In this case, the color that a chemical absorbs is the opposite of the color that it appears. The color wheel shows you which colors are opposite of one another. The color wheel helps you to predict the color that a chemical absorbs based on the color it appears (and vice versa). For example, beta-carotene, a pigment found in many fruits and vegetables including carrots, absorbs purple and blue light (400 – 500 nm) and reflects all of the other colors, so it appears yellow/orange. It DOES NOT emit yellow/orange light.

Mixtures of colored chemicals add a layer of complexity. For example, a beverage may appear green because it contains green dye, so it would have one absorption peak in the red, or it may appear green because it contains a mixture of blue and yellow dyes, which would together have two absorption peaks, one in the orange and one in the violet. Just like in lab 2, chemists use the physical and chemical properties of substances to separate mixtures of substances. The separation of a mixture for analysis purposes is generally called “chromatography.” You may have inadvertently done chromatography if you have ever seen black ink get wet and spread into its component dyes based on the way the dyes interact with the water and the paper. Things that appear black or brown are mostly mixtures of multiple substances that together can absorb broadly across the spectrum such as two colors opposite to one another on the color wheel. In order to really be black, something would have to absorb every color of light, which is uncommon given that energy levels are quantized (give that some time to sink in).


Part 1: Prepare cotton for tie dye

(Hint: If you read through these instructions before coming to lab, plan on completing this step before the pre-lab discussion to ensure the most vibrant colors possible.)

  1. Use a permanent marker to write your name on the tag of your garment.
  2. Soak your garment in the sodium carbonate wash for at least 30 minutes. This solution is very basic, so wear gloves when in contact with the wash.
Part 2: Measure absorption of various food dyes and a sample of your choice

Note: perform this procedure with a partner.

First, fill out Table 1 with information about your sample. Be sure to write down any food dyes that you know are present in the sample. Do not use a sample that contains dyes or natural colors other than the ones we are testing in Table 2.

  1. Fill 7 cuvettes with 1 mL of each of the food dyes, one with your sample, and one with DI H2O (9 cuvettes total). The water serves as a blank. Label your cuvettes on the top. Use a volumetric pipette to measure the 1 mL volume.
  2. Set the spectrophotometer to 430 nm.
  3. Blank the instrument with the water.
  4. Measure and record in Table 2 of your worksheet the absorbance of each of the dyes.
  5. Repeat steps 2 – 4 for the other wavelengths. Be sure to blank at every wavelength. Note: if your sample ever gives an absorbance reading greater than 1, dilute the sample by 50% and repeat the sample measurements at all wavelengths. 
  6. Wash and return your cuvettes after you are finished. All of these solutions can go down the drain.
Part 3: Tie and dye cotton
  1. Wring out the garment to dry it as much as you can.
  2. Fold and tie with waxed sinew your garment however you like.  Here are some designs you might like to try.
  3. Working in a foil pie pan on a surface covered in newspaper, apply the dye. Use your knowledge of the color wheel to select colors that will mix well. (Hint: colors that are next to each other on the color wheel mix well, but colors across from each other make brown/black.) Be sure to saturate the fabric with dye, but don’t put so much on that the dye pools underneath the fabric. Again, wear gloves when working with dye or it will dye your skin!
  4. Wrap your garment in clean newspaper and put it in a sealed plastic bag. Place it in your cabinet and leave it there for the week.
  5. Clean your foil pie pan, return it, and throw away wet newspaper.


Fill out this worksheet. Turn in either a paper or digital copy. Optional survey.

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