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In this lab, students will consider and utilize various separation techniques to purify and reclaim used motor oil.

Grade Level

Middle school

NGSS Alignment

This lab will help prepare your students to meet the performance expectations in the following standards:

  • MS-PS1-2: Analyze and interpret data on the properties of substances before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred.
  • MS-ETS1-3: Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.
  • Science and Engineering Practices
    • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
    • Analyzing and Interpreting Data


By the end of this lab, students should be able to

  • Describe the separation process for mixed liquids of different densities.
  • Identify when a physical or chemical change has occurred.
  • Consider and suggest various techniques to separate impurities in used motor oil.
  • Consider the current issues associated with waste oil or used motor oil.

Chemistry Topics

  • Separation Mixtures
  • Density
  • Chemical Change
  • Physical Change


Teacher Preparation: 1 hour

Lesson: 1 class for lab, discussion, and write-up


  • Screw top test tubes or small jars able to hold approximately 50 mL
  • 10 mL of used motor oil, in test tubes, for each station - from local automotive shops
  • Bottles of white distilled vinegar (3-5% acetic acid) at each station
  • 10 ml graduated cylinders
  • Test tube racks
  • Trays to catch the mess
  • Safety goggles
  • Nitrile gloves


  • Always wear safety goggles when handling chemicals in the lab.
  • Students should wash their hands thoroughly before leaving the lab.
  • When students complete the lab, instruct them how to clean up their materials and dispose of any chemicals.
  • Students should Wear a lab apron and nitrile gloves during the lab as the oil can stain clothing and skin.

Teacher Notes

  • The selection of vinegar as a ‘cleansing agent’ is based on the following article,
  • Recycling of Waste Engine Oils Using a New Washing Agent” by Hamawand et al.
  • which utilizes acetic acid to purify some contaminants from used motor oil at room temperature. This of course is highly simplified in this lab for middle-school students.
  • Dirty oil is dirty! You will get messy.
  • Be sure to have the used oil already prepped in the test tubes prior to class.
  • Follow all local disposal rules for waste motor oil.

Cross-Disciplinary Extensions

Connect to Writing
Students will write their observations and considerations for alternative separation techniques in their science notebooks.

Connect to Social Studies
Consider the worldwide environmental issues involved in the disposal of motor oil waste.

For the Student



Motor oil is used around the world to stop the damaging effects of friction and heat on the metal engine parts in vehicles. After a few thousand miles of abuse, these oils become contaminated with metal filings, dirt and other burnt particles that cause them to be less effective. That’s when you change the oil in your car. You then have to deal with the waste oil. It is typically burned to heat shops and homes or re-purified/cleaned to be used once again in a motor vehicle. Surprisingly, once you take the contaminants out, the oil is still good to use in your car. Since burning contaminated oil can have a negative effect on the atmosphere, the methods used for re-claiming and reusing oil are becoming more popular. In this lab, you will get an opportunity to consider and use some of the techniques you have learned about separating materials and try to clean up some used motor oil. Be careful, it is really dirty.

Prelab Questions

  1. What are three problems associated with used oil?
  2. Have you ever participated in or watched an oil change?
  3. Have you ever seen a negative environmental effect of used oil?
  4. What are some ways oil can be cleaned?


In this lab we will tackle the problem of how to get the contaminants out of used motor oil using some of the separation techniques we have covered in lecture.


  • One screw top test tube with 10 mL used motor oil
  • Small bottle of distilled white vinegar (3-5% acetic acid)
  • 10ml graduated cylinder
  • Test tube rack
  • Trays to catch the mess


  • Always wear safety goggles when handling chemicals in the lab.
  • Students should wash their hands thoroughly before leaving the lab.
  • Clean up and dispose of materials as directed.
  • Wear a lab apron and nitrile gloves during the lab.


One of the techniques used to clean oil is to mix it with acetic acid. We will be using distilled white vinegar (like in pickles) as our source of acetic acid.

  1. Record your initial observations for the oil in the test tube in the data table below.
  2. Measure 10ml of vinegar in the graduated cylinder.
  3. Remove the cap from the oil test tube and add the 10mL of vinegar. Be sure to do this over the tray!
  4. Firmly replace the cap and record your observations of the mixture in the data table.
  5. Now take turns shaking the tube for a total of 10 minutes. Be careful, the oil will stain your clothing and shoes if it leaks from the test tube!
  6. Set the tube back in the rack and observe what happens. Be ready to note your observations in the data table.


Oil Oil + Vinegar (before shaking) Oil + Vinegar (after shaking)


  1. Describe what happens to the mixture both before and after you shake it. Be sure to explain it as if the person reading it has never seen the lab in action. Please use the following questions as a writing guide.
  • What is happening?
  • Why?
  • Can you recall any scientific terms used to describe this?
  • Is the oil clean? Is it pure? Why or why not?
  • What’s next? Consider what you could do next to further purify the oil. Remember the techniques we talked about in class.


Please describe what you learned and how successful your attempt to purify your oil sample went. Please include any ideas you have to further clean up your sample. Remember to describe it in a way that someone who wasn’t involved in the lab can understand.