Atmospheric Pressure
Properties of Matter

Measuring the density of air 1

Practical Activity for 14-16 PRACTICAL PHYISCS

Class practical

This is a very quick experiment that provides evidence that air has mass. This still surprises some students!

Apparatus and Materials

For each student group

  • Party balloon, large
  • Bucket
  • Measuring jug
  • Electronic balance

Health & Safety and Technical Notes

Read our standard health & safety guidance


The bucket should be large enough to fully immerse an inflated balloon. A kitchen bin works well.

The electronic balance should be sensitive to 0.1 g or less.

Procedure

  1. Inflate the balloon.
  2. Immerse the balloon in the bucket of water and note the level the water rises to.
  3. Take the balloon out and leave it to dry.
  4. Pour water from a measuring jug into the bucket until the water level matches the level with the immersed balloon. Record how much water you added. This is the volume of the balloon.
  5. Check that the balloon is completely dry.
  6. Measure the mass of the balloon on the electronic scales.
  7. Burst the balloon near the neck. Measure the mass of the empty balloon.

Analysis

  1. Calculate mass of air in the inflated balloon in kg
  2. Calculate the volume of the inflated balloon in m3
  3. Calculate the density of air in kg m-3
  4. Compare your answer with others in the class

Teaching Notes

  • This simple experiment ignores the buoyancy of air displaced by the balloon and so is not accurate but it does yield surprisingly consistent results. Individual results can be compared and a measure of uncertainty agreed.
  • If air is particulate, it would be expected to possess mass. That it does so is shown in this experiment. However, it would also have mass if it is an infinitely extendable fluid!

This experiment was safety-tested in September 2004

Thanks to Doug Fraser for pointing out an error on this page, now corrected. Editor

Atmospheric Pressure
is a special case of Pressure
IOP DOMAINS Physics CPD programme

Energy CPD videos

Our new set of videos gives teachers and coaches of physics a preview of the training we offer ahead of this term's live support sessions.

Find out more