8A80.90 - The Creating of Life in the Classroom

Code Number:
Demo Title:
The Creating of Life in the Classroom
Area of Study:
Solar Astronomy
Aquarium (Large Tank), U.V. Lights, Tesla Coil, Electrode with ball on the end and Holder Accessory, Other Aquarium Accessories, Water (40 Liters), Liquid Nitrogen (2.4 Liters), Carbon (Charcoal - 10 lb.), Sulfur (60 grams), Calcium (120 grams), Ground Chalk, Phosphorus (Phosphoric acid - 13 ml), Trace amounts of elements (Na, Cl, K, I, Fe, Mn, Mo, Si, F, Cu, Zn), Large Stirring Rod, Large Tongs, Sponge Animals.

This demo is based on an experiment where amino acids were created using much the same conditions.

Set the fish tank on the table.  Fill this with water to a height of 6 1/2 inches above the table and you will have approximately 40 liters.  Put the 10 lb. of charcoal into two large plastic beakers with the small sponge animals hidden in amongst the charcoal.  (Note: The sponge animals are optional.)  The liquid nitrogen is picked up from Biochem Stores ahead of time.  The rest of the chemicals can be measured out into their own separate petri dishes.  Place the U.V. lights above and/or behind the tank.  Have the electrodes all set up and ready to put into the tank when ready.  Procedure: The Lecture Demonstration Coordinator helps with this experiment.  Pour the charcoal into the tank of water.  Now with stirring pour in the 2.4 liters of liquid nitrogen.  A nice rolling fog will develop.  Next add the sulfur (60 gr.), calcium (120 gr.), Phosphorus (Phosphoric acid - 13 ml.), and the trace minerals sodium, chlorine, iodine (Iodized Salt), potassium (Salt Substitute), iron, copper, zinc, (Metal filings), manganese (Manganese Oxide - MnO2), Silicon (Sand), Molybdenum and Florine (We usually do without these two).  Now we have all the ingredients to make life.  Add a little energy in the forms of U.V. radiation (U.V. Lights), and Lightning (The electrode with the ball on the end of the rod is placed into the tank and excited with a Tesla coil so that "lightening" can be see jumping from the Tesla coil to the ball ).  At the end of lecture the teacher pulls out one of the sponge animals that was hidden in the charcoal, showing that indeed "life" was produced.

Caution:  Make sure you are not touching any part of the tank when the Tesla coil is running.

  • Tobias Owen, "Planetary Atmospheres and the Search for Life", TPT, Vol. 20, # 2, Feb. 1982, p. 90 - 96.
  • Charles S. Cockell, "The Laws of Life", Physics Today, March 2017, p. 43-48.
  • Eleanor Hutterer, "Was There, Is There, Anybody There?", 1663 - Los Alamos Science and Technology Magazine, Aug. 2021, p. 28.
  • Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, "# 11, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence", Scientific American Cosmology +1, May 1975, p. 94.  See the Lecture Demo Reference Library in Rm. 58 for this reference.
  • "Elemental Questions", Uncle John's Bathroom Reader, p. 36.
  • Stephen L. Gillett,  "On Building an Earth-Like Planet",  Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact Magazine.
  • Curt Suplee, "What is life, anyway?", Everyday Science Explained, National Geographic, p. 172.

Disclaimer: These demonstrations are provided only for illustrative use by persons affiliated with The University of Iowa and only under the direction of a trained instructor or physicist.  The University of Iowa is not responsible for demonstrations performed by those using their own equipment or who choose to use this reference material for their own purpose.  The demonstrations included here are within the public domain and can be found in materials contained in libraries, bookstores, and through electronic sources.  Performing all or any portion of any of these demonstrations, with or without revisions not depicted here entails inherent risks.  These risks include, without limitation, bodily injury (and possibly death), including risks to health that may be temporary or permanent and that may exacerbate a pre-existing medical condition; and property loss or damage.  Anyone performing any part of these demonstrations, even with revisions, knowingly and voluntarily assumes all risks associated with them.