Synthesize of nitrocellulose

The formation of tight and quickly-burning cotton wool from ordinary cotton wool

Scientific name: Nitration of cellulose


Nitrocellulose (guncotton)

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Wear eye protection goggles and protective gloves. Work away from flammable objects.

Always follow general safety recommendations. Please note that conducting chemistry experiments you must comply with the relevant legal procedures in your country.

Reaction formula

(C6H10O5)n + HNO3 + H2SO4 → (C6H7O2(OH)3-x(ONO2)x)n

(C6H7O2(OH)3-x(ONO2)x)n + O2 → CO2 + H2O + NO2

Step-by-step instruction

WARNING! This experiment is dangerous! You should NOT perform this at home. ONLY carry out this experiment, if you are a trained chemist, and you understand local safety and legal requirements, which are required to perform such experiments

  1. Make a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids. Put 50 ml of concentrated sulfuric acid and 25 ml of concentrated nitric acid into a graduated cylinder.
  2. Transfer the mixture into a beaker and stir.
  3. Weigh approximately 5 grams of cotton wool.
  4. Put the cotton wool into a beaker and stir the resulting mixture. Wait until the brown gas stops releasing (approximately 2 minutes).
  5. Prepare 3 beakers with distilled water.
  6. Transfer the cotton wool from the beaker with acids into the first beaker with water, then to the second beaker, then to the third beaker.
  7. Wait 15 minutes.
  8. Add a small amount of soda to the third beaker until the gas stops releasing.
  9. Rinse the cotton wool with water and dry it.
  10. Ignite the resulting piece of nitrocellulose. It will burn very quickly.

Scientific background

Cotton wool consists of cellulose. Cellulose is a carbohydrate, and thus exposed to nitration reaction. Like all nitro compounds, nitrocellulose has a low stability, and therefore burns very quickly.


Published on 13 June 2015

  • Fire
  • Heating with fire
  • Explosion
  • Poisoned gas
  • Organic
  • Electricity
  • Solution
  • Oxidation reduction
  • Color change
  • Precipitate
  • Gassing
  • Catalyst