Flammable Science: Homemade Black Snake Fireworks

 - by KitchenPantryScientist

***Always wear goggles and fireproof aprons, if you have them, when working with flammable substances like ethyl alcohol, which burns very hot with no color! Be sure to pull long hair back as well!
Fireworks are really just explosive chemical reactions, and they’ve  been around for thousands of years. Most of them are far too dangerous to make at home, but with some parental supervision, it’s fun to make homemade “black snake” fireworks, which are basically just flambeed powdered sugar and baking soda! Thanks again to Pat Mullin of Labconco who sent me a video of this experiment, which I posted about a year ago.

I had to mess around with the recipe to get it to work consistently, and each time we do it we get different-looking snakes, but it’s pretty neat.  The key is to use enough fuel (alcohol) to keep your sugar burning.

BE SAFE!  Set this experiment up on a heat-proof surface like a concrete driveway and have a hose ready, just in case. Make sure long hair is pulled back, and don’t try this on a windy day.

You’ll need: 

1/3 cup sand, mounded in a pie plate with an indentation in the middle to hold the sugar/baking soda mix.

3 tsp. high-percentage alcohol (ethanol) like Everclear. I chose this as fuel rather than denatured alcohol or lighter fluid since there are no toxic fumes when you burn it.

4 tsp. powdered sugar mixed with 1 tsp. baking soda.

To make your snakes:
-Add the alcohol to the indentation in the sand.

-scoop 1 tsp. of the sugar/baking soda mix into a teaspoon and carefully drop it into the indentation in the sand.  It’s fine if it holds the shape of the spoon, but try not to pack it down!

-Have an adult use a grill lighter or a long match to light the alcohol around the sugar on fire.  It may be hard to see the flame, so stand back.  You’ll see the sugar start to bubble when it’s lit.  It will burn until the alcohol is gone, so wait until you’re sure it’s out before you try to touch the snakes!

What happens?  When the baking soda gets hot, it makes carbon dioxide gas. The pressure from this gas pushes the carbonate from the burning sugar out of the sand, producing the “black snakes” you see.

Did you know there’s carbon in plants, like sugar cane? It’s called new carbon and is constantly recycled between the environment and living things. There’s also old carbon, like the kind you find in fossil fuels, including coal and oil. Here’s a cool NASA video that talks about the carbon cycle:

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