It’s easy to make purple fire using common household ingredients. Purple is unusual because it’s not a color of the spectrum. Purple and magenta result from a mixture of blue light and red light. For this project, the fire color comes from the emission spectra of safe chemicals. Basically, it’s the practical application of the flame test. You may also wonder whether there is true violet fire and how hot it gets. Here’s what you need to know.
Purple Fire Ingredients
There are several metal salts the emit blue, red, or violet light when heated. You combine these salts with a fuel to get the desired purple color. However, only a few of these chemicals are readily available, inexpensive, and non-toxic:
- Salt substitute (check label for potassium chloride)
- Red emergency flare (contains strontium nitrate)
The fuel is important. If you toss these chemicals on an ordinary campfire, you won’t get purple flames because the yellow from trace amounts of sodium in wood overpowers violet. Because human eyes are not very sensitive to violet light, you need to use a fuel that either burns with a nearly invisible flame or else a blue flame. Suitable fuels include:
- Rubbing alcohol
- Hand sanitizer (which contains alcohol)
- Methanol (Heet fuel treatment)
- Lighter fluid
- Natural gas
How to Get Strontium From the Flare
Strictly speaking, you don’t need the strontium from the road flare to make purple fire. However, the red from strontium makes the flame much more purple or magenta than violet, and thus much easier to see.
The emergency flare is a long cardboard tube with a striker at one end. Peel away the cardboard on the end of the flare (the opposite end from the striker) to reveal the powdery material inside the flare. Collect this and store it in a bowl or baggie. You only need a tiny amount, so you can save most of it for other projects.
Make Purple Fire
Once you’ve gathered the materials, making purple fire is easy. Simply sprinkle a bit of salt substitute and flare powder onto the fuel and ignite it with a long-handled lighter.
Other Ways to Get Purple and Violet Fire
You may be wondering about other chemicals that produce purple flames:
- Rubidium (Reddish violet)
- Cesium (Blue-violet)
- Calcium (Brick red, but appears purple with a blue flame)
- Lithium (Crimson red)
- Zirconium (Pale red)
- Cadmium (Brick red, also toxic)
- Mercury (Red, highly toxic)
- Yttrium (Crimson)
Violet incandescence is theoretically possible. Black-body radiation typically follows the general color scheme (coolest to hottest): red, orange, yellow, white, and blue. But, there may be violet-hot, which would be even hotter than blue. We would perceive violet heat as being white-hot, but a spectrographic analysis could show the true color as violet to ultraviolet.
How Hot Is Purple Fire?
When you add chemicals to a fuel to make purple fire, the temperature of the flame is characteristic of the fuel. Here are some typical peak flame temperature for different fuels:
- Methanol: 1870 °C (3398 °F)
- Ethanol: 1920 °C (3488 °F)
- Propane (in air): 1980 °C (3596 °F)
For incandescence or black-body radiation, temperature relates to color:
- Deep red: 600-800 °C (1112-1800 °F)
- Orange-yellow: 1100 °C (2012 °F)
- White: 1300-1500 °C (2400-2700 °F)
- Blue: 1400-1650 °C (2600-3000 °F)
- Violet: 39400 °C (71000 °F)
To put the extraordinary high temperature of violet heat into perspective, our Sun burns around 8500 and glow yellow and white! The hottest stars we observe are blue-white.
Obviously, fire is hot! This project requires adult supervision. Also, any time you make fire you should have a fire extinguisher or water handy.
Don’t add liquid fuel to a burning fire. Wait until the flame dies out completely before recharging the fire.
- Kroemer, Herbert; Kittel, Charles (1980). Thermal Physics (2nd ed.). W. H. Freeman Company. ISBN 0-7167-1088-9.
- Sanger, Michael J.; Phelps, Amy J.; Catherine Banks (2004). “Simple Flame Test Techniques Using Cotton Swabs”. Journal of Chemical Education. 81 (7): 969. doi:10.1021/ed081p969
- Schmidt-Rohr, K (2015). “Why Combustions Are Always Exothermic, Yielding About 418 kJ per Mole of O2“. J. Chem. Educ. 92 (12): 2094–99. doi:10.1021/acs.jchemed.5b00333
- UCSB ScienceLine (2016). “Why is blue hotter than purple?”