Art Meets Science

FIREWORKS: Making a Safer Carbon Snake
This is the same reaction that you see in black snake fireworks that you can buy on July 4th. The original version of this reaction used a mercury compound that was very toxic – bad for people and the environment. Today’s version, with sugar, alcohol, and baking soda is safe to try at home and breaks down only to water, carbon, and carbon dioxide. You can also use denatured alcohol from the hardware store, lighter fluid, or camping fuel as your fuel source. It might also be a fun experiment to see which burns hot enough to make larger snakes.

Sugar and baking soda are in the bowl together when you set them on fire. The Combustion (or burning) of sugar and baking soda leads to a chemical change in the matter, producing water vapor, sodium carbonate, and carbon dioxide. Water vapor is just little droplets of water in the air. The carbon turns black in the combustion, and the pressure created by the carbon dioxide gas rapidly pushes out the sodium carbonate, forming a light and fluffy black carbon “snake.” Scientifically, this reaction is known as the dehydration of sugar.

*Recipe and Sources were borrowed from science faculty at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

A few words of caution when doing this experiment: Because this involves fire, (1) the experiment should be done with a responsible adult who knows how to manage fire safety issues, (2) the experiment should be done outside as it does produce fumes and will smell up an enclosed space, (3) have lots of extra sand on hand in case your flames get out of control. Tossing sand on the fire will help tame the fire pretty quickly. Stay safe.