Creating the Largest Elephant’s Toothpaste in the Name of Science
By Christina Phillis
Elephant’s toothpaste is a popular chemical demonstration — mix hydrogen peroxide, yeast, soap, and water to produce an impressive display of foam that resembles toothpaste as it’s squeezed from the tube. You may remember the experiment from grade school — a fun yet messy way to engage young minds.
Not Just for Kids
Burnaby Orbax, science communications officer and Physics lecturer at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and his partner Pepper Klopek attempted to break the Guinness World Record for the largest elephant’s toothpaste this year. It happened on May 9 at the university’s Science Olympics, an annual event that brings together a group of 1,500 high school students and teachers for a scientific competition. The Fisher Scientific channel sponsored this year’s event.
In partnership with the University of Guelph Physics and Astronomy Club, Orbax and Klopek attempted to beat the current record held by Science Bob, Kelly Ripa, and Ryan Seacrest. They set the earlier record on the television show “Live with Kelly and Ryan” on June 18, 2018, with a fountain of foam that measured 13.07 m³ (461 ft³ 967 in³). Data from the latest attempt is being analyzed by the university’s math department, and will eventually be sent to Guinness World Record headquarters in London, England. There, the meticulous process of verifying the claim begins.
The Bigger the Better
To create enough elephant’s toothpaste to beat the record, the team needed to “scale up” their tabletop version. “We did some calculations and worked with our chemical lead in the physics department. We figured out a ratio that we could scale up 500 times to make it really big,” said Orbax.
They worked with their Fisher Scientific sales representative Craig Matson, and were able to assemble the right amount of chemicals within a matter of days. On the day of the attempt, they mixed 52L of Fisher Chemical™ 30% hydrogen peroxide, 10L of Fisher Chemical potassium iodide, water, and soap. The potassium iodide works as a catalyst, and breaks down hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen. The resulting oxygen bubbles are trapped by the soapy water and create foam.
“We wanted to do a big record that would connect with young people and would also not be easily achievable without proper training or supervision,” said Orbax. “Creating a giant toothpaste experiment was an opportunity to inspire young people to get into science and show them the possibilities that exist on the horizon.”
Science That Inspires
Not only are Orbax and Klopek known as Guinness World Record breakers (they’ve succeeded in the past), they’re also science showmen. They travel to different schools, science centers, and festivals around the world, presenting science concepts in a show called “Orbax and Pepper Do Science”. One crowd favorite is showing kids how to create slime. They’ve also collaborated on a book “ Guinness World Records: Science & Stuff”, which includes experiments that can be tried at home or in school. Some of the suggested Guinness World Record breakers include the longest flight of a paper airplane or building the longest, most stable bridge from Lego™ blocks.
In his role as leader for community outreach for the Physics Department at the University of Guelph, Orbax participates in a number of other events, including the Physics Road Show, a presentation of different physics concepts tailored to a high school’s specific curriculum. Orbax and team also help bring to life STEM Week, hosted by the Guelph Civic Museum in Ontario. University students, as part of their regular coursework, develop a 30-minute interactive STEM session for grades 6 through 8 that they demonstrate at this event.
Orbax believes these in-person, hands-on interactions are a better way to get kids interested in science. “So many people get turned off by science at a young age by not knowing what the options are in post-secondary. We’re trying to encourage young people to pursue science by showing them the opportunities,” said Orbax.
That’s certainly an approach we can support, and one we hope continues to grow, along with their list of Guinness World Record titles.