Students at Galvez Middle School learned to see their ordinary-looking, dull, black marker pens in a whole new light — and new colors — after a visit to the BASF Kids Lab chromatography station set up in the school’s gym March 23.

Chromatography is a method of separating compounds into individual components, and the student-scientists used chromatography to identify different pen types by the different colored inks used to make them.

“Black ink isn’t always just black,” said Silvia Medrano a volunteer from BASF leading the experiment at one chromatography station, as she asked for their help in solving the case of Mr. Pickles, the missing cat.

Mr. Pickles was stolen from his home, and the only clue, collected and sent to the chromatography stations, was a ransom note written in black ink.

It was the students’ job to use the chromatography method to identify the pen used to create the note by the unique components of the ink, said Elizabeth Canfield, communications specialist for BASF Louisiana. “Then they will find the person who is holding that pen to identify the thief.”

Medrano had the students cut a hole in the center of a piece of white filter paper, then draw concentric circles in various inks around the center of that hole. Students then rolled up another piece of filter paper, and pushed the filter “tube” through the hole, placing the whole setup into a glass of water.

As Medrano explained the process, the filter “tube” wicked water slowly onto the marked paper, as the water reached the concentric circles, began separating the seemingly black ink into many component primary colors.

Next, Medrano unfolded a piece of filter paper from a previous experiment to reveal a tie-dye effect that looked like a flower made up of primary colors.

Canfield said the BASF Kids Lab is an international educational program put on by the chemical company in an effort to get children interested in science at a young age, she said. That has the added benefit of ensuring that BASF will have a well-trained, science-literate workforce in the years to come, she said.

This lab was offered exclusively to students on site at Galvez Middle, but public BASF Kids Lab classes are held twice monthly at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum in Baton Rouge, she said.

Editor’s Note: This story was changed on March 31 to correct the spelling of Silvia Medrano’s name and April 1 to correct date of the event.