What is the chemical explanation for pennies in vinegar turning green? What is the explanation at a macroscopic and atom-molecular level?

The procedure is:

  1. Fold a paper towel so that it fits inside a dish.
  2. Place a penny on the paper towel.
  3. Pour vinegar over it so that the paper towel is fully saturated.


  • $\begingroup$ Related: 1, 2, 3 $\endgroup$
    – user7951
    Jun 8, 2018 at 14:15

3 Answers 3


This question may explain about what happens with the pennies at a microscopic level: What is the product of a copper and vinegar reaction?

Also, in his paper, Stephen DeMeo presents the electrochemical perspective:

The mechanism that has been proposed involves the formation of a free radical and an electrochemical corrosion process (1). [...], suffice it to say that the mechanism does involve formation of a strong oxidizer, peroxoacetic acid ($\ce{CH3COOOH}$), from dissolved oxygen, as well as the production of a copper oxide and a copper ion.

He also explains why the reaction just happens in the presence of oxygen:

Since copper is below hydrogen in the electrochemical series, copper is reluctant to displace hydrogen ions from electrolytes. In terms of standard electrode potential, copper has a potential of 0.34 volts ($\ce{Cu -> Cu^{2+} + 2e-}$), while hydrogen has a greater potential of 0.00 volts ($\ce{2 H+ + 2e- -> H2}$). The electromotive force of the cell would be negative and therefore the reaction would be nonspontaneous under standard conditions. When oxygen is involved in the reaction between copper and acetic acid, the electrochemical series and the standard electrode potentials cannot be used as a guide to determine if the reaction is spontaneous. A generalized relationship between copper metal and acids is nicely described by Massey: "Although copper metal will dissolve readily in an oxidizing acid such as nitric acid it will not dissolve in a nonoxidizing acid unless either an oxidizing agent or a suitable complexing agent is present also" (6).

  • Reference: DeMeo, S. Does Copper Metal React with Acetic Acid? J. Chem. Educ. 1997, 74, 844-846. DOI: 10.1021/ed074p844

You are probably making some combination of copper(II) acetate and basic copper carbonate (Cu2(OH)2CO3), both of which have a nice green color and are present in the classical painter's pigment verdigris (the name comes from "vert de Grece" in old French, "green of Greece"). The reaction is probably initially between the CuO "tarnish" on the surface of the penny and the acid, but may also involve Cu itself once the CuO gets eaten up in some locations. If you start googling "verdigris" and "copper carbonate" you'll find lots of descriptions of the reactions, some of which have interesting historical roots.


This is a quote from your link:

A chemical reaction has occurred! (A chemical reaction is the combination of two reactants to form something entirely new.) A penny is made of copper. The vinegar on the paper towel helps the copper in the penny easily react with the oxygen in the air to form a blue-green colored compound called malachite.

If you want to know more, I would search Google for "copper tarnish", "malachite", "statue of liberty color", "green penny" or things like that.

Your link shows up first in the "green penny" search, but don't just look at the first one! The statue of liberty has enough copper to make 30 million pennies??? Really??? That is so cool.

Just look around. You will find amazing and interesting things.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi Skeptycal, welcome to Chemistry! Take the tour to get familiar with this site. This doesn't really answer the question. $\endgroup$ Jun 8, 2018 at 3:21
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, I will. I suppose I took the context to be a question based on an article for "kids" so I gave a "kid level" response. $\endgroup$ Jun 8, 2018 at 3:40

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