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COLOURED FLAMES

Coloured Flames

Many people have asked about this and many have played with coloured flames. On the whole I would say from my experience that there is not a great deal which can be done in this area by the amateur not willing to spend a lot of money and time.
Colouring flame is done by dissolving salts (metal compounds such as sodium chloride) in a solvent which also acts as the fuel. When the fuel burns, it also causes the metal ions to emit on their characteristic wavelengths (just like the flame colour tests in chemistry). To see the colour it is important that the flame colour does not mask it.

The standard fuel for juggling is paraffin (kerosene) or lamp fuel (eg Coleman's). Unfortunately the metal salts do not dissolve in these fuels which are mostly short and mid-length alkanes and variants, as they are non-polar. You need a polar fuel such as ethanol, which has the advantage of also producing a fairly colourless flame. This is available as 'Meths' or 'Industrial methylated alcohol' with impurities of no consequence (unless you want to drink it!).

Be warned that meths is poisonous. If ingested, drink milk of magnesia (lacking M.o.M., drink plain milk or even water). Do NOT induce vomiting: as corrosive liquids burn just as much on the way up as on the way down, this is not recommended by medical and first aid organisations. If splashed in the eye wash with running water immediately and seek medical advice - meths is particularly toxic to the optic nerve. Be especially careful when mixing -- wear eye protection and thin rubber/latex gloves.
Meths is more expensive than paraffin - and available from most chemists. Also the chemist may refuse to sell large quantities - buy a few liters at a time.

Please take note:

  1. Your wicks will be ruined.
    ~ Not only are some of the chemicals corrosive to metal, the higher burning temperature of the methylated spirits means the kevlar will degrade quicker too. If you can, it's advisable to have a normal fire wick/poi/staff and a coloured flame one - even going so far as a different wick for each different colour. Some of the chemicals can leave a manky reisdue which builds up on the wicks after a while - not only looking (and often smelling) unpleasant, but severly reducing the wicks' burn-time.
  2. Toxic: Hazardous to Health
    ~ Some of the chemicals (including just Meths!) are pretty nasty - both in their "natural" state and the vapours they produce whilst burning. It's advisable to not regularly use any of these (try and limit yourself to 2 burns a night) even go as far as wearing a pollution mask. Wear some rubber gloves whilst handling them, and wash your hands before touching your eye or any other sensitive area of your body. No one likes a chemical burn.
    DO NOT EVEN CONSIDER DOING FIRE BREATHING WITH ANY OF THESE CHEMICALS
  3. It's hot
    ~ May seem obvious, but it's always good to be aware Whilst you may feel happy doing bare-skin wraps with kero/paraffin, it's not really advisble to do it with these mixes. Not only does the Meths burn hotter than both kero and Coleman's/White Gas, the chemicals will also be burning and could do nasty things to your lovely arms. Wear nice loose fitting natural fiber tops and trousers. No-one likes a spinner in a shell-suit

Chemicals for Coloured Flames

Start with the best - boric acid is cheap and gives an excellent bright green colour. Dissolve as much as will go into solution. Any precipitate can be dissolved in more meths. Dip and burn as a normal club - remember to shake off excess carefully. Boric acid can be obtained at chemists and through laboratory supplies. It is a mild irritant but not especially dangerous.

Before use, clean the torch of paraffin by burning it as long as possible without damaging the wick. The first one or two times the colour of paraffin (yellow) will continue to burn with the chemicals, producing an eerie two tone effect if you are lucky.

RED Lithium chloride gives a gentle red colour. It is not a very bright flame, it is expensive and more difficult to get hold of - lab supplies again being the best option.

BLUE Blue is nearly impossible to achieve as it requires a very cool flame. The mark of a good pyrotechnician is his blue. Potassium acetate is wimpish and a poor colour but cheap. Copper salts start green and only go blue briefly as the flame dies away. Both are quite cheap.

So for a quick recap, the following chemicals make coloured flames
(NB - There may be other chemicals which produce these, and other, colours, but these are the best for fire spinning)
Green - Boric Acid
Red - Lithium Chloride
Lilac - Potassium Chloride
Purple - Potassium Nitrate aka "Saltpetre" (*Warning* Burns VERY hot)
Blue - Copper Chloride


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