Materials Used to Develop Common Substances

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

We use things such as glass and ink on a daily basis, but we don't typically know what they are made from. In this lesson, we will learn the materials used to make several common substances.

Everyday Products

You wake up in the morning and take a shower, getting all clean with your favorite soap. Then you look out the window to determine the weather today. Later you grab the newspaper from the driveway. You remind yourself to look at new paint colors for your living room, and then head out the door for school. This doesn't sound like too crazy of a morning, but have you ever stopped to think about the everyday items that you use—soap, glass, ink, paper, cement, and many others—and wondered what they are made from?

Several of these substances have been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Yet, today most of us would have a hard time describing how these compounds are made, let alone what materials are used to make them. Let's find out.


Soap is made from fat and a caustic soda (an alkali). Historically, animal fat was combined with wood ash. In the late 18th century, wood ash was replaced with sodium hydroxide, which is derived from table salt. Today, sodium hydroxide is the most common alkali used, although potassium hydroxide can be used for a softer soap. Animal fat isn't typically used nowadays, with processed vegetable fat being more common. You may see soaps declaring that they contain olive oil or coconut oil, which means that the fat used was a refined olive or coconut oil.

Often, fragrances and colors are added to soap to make it more attractive. Even if you have white soap, a dye has been added, because soap with no dye is a grey or brown color. Abrasives such as sand may also be added for a scrubbing effect.


Basic glass is made from melting silica (sand) down with soda ash and limestone. This requires extremely high temperatures (1700 degrees Celsius). Different types of glass can be made by adding other minerals to change the color, and the rate at which the glass is cooled can affect how clear it is.

Glass can be made into a variety of colors by adding other minerals to the heated sand.
Stained glass

Glass is formed while it is hot because it's soft and pliable during this period. It can be formed into glass windows, drinking glasses, or any other desired shape.


Ink starts out with some kind of solvent, typically an oil or petroleum, and a dye. The dyes commonly include yellow lake and peacock blue, and other combinations of minerals may be used to obtain additional colors.

We can get black ink with carbon and white with titanium dioxide. Other additives such as waxes can help make ink appear or write differently.


Before paper was developed, our ancestors had to chisel their messages into metal or rock sheets. Paper is typically made from wood fibers, but can be made from many other plant fibers as well. It can be made with only these plant fibers, although bleach is often added to make it white. Other chemicals can be used to separate the cellulose (raw wood fibers) from the lignin (a naturally occurring glue in cellulose) to make the paper stronger. The plant fibers are simply cut and crushed up with water, which results in a pulp that can be spread into thin layers to dry into paper.


Cement seems pretty straightforward—it's just some kind of funny rock, right? Cement is mostly different kinds of rocks ground up and combined, but by controlling the proportions of the rock types as well as elements such as calcium, silicon, and aluminum, it can be made very hard and strong.

Cement typically uses limestone as the main rock type. The limestone is crushed, and iron ore and ash can be added to help strengthen it. The ground rocks will go through a fire to help drive off undesired impurities, and then they will be ground up into a fine powder. This will often have gypsum (a mineral) added to it, and then it's ready to be mixed with water and laid.

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