Make a Tabletop Fire Tornado: Red and Blue Flames

Red & Blue Fire Vortex

Red & Blue Fire Vortex (Anne Helmenstine)

It’s fun and educational to make a tabletop fire tornado or fire vortex. Why not experiment with color, too? The easiest variation is the green fire tornado, but you can use other chemicals and a similar technique to get other colors or even multiple colors. This fire tornado showcases red and blue flames.

Materials

  • mesh waste basket
  • lazy susan or turntable
  • strontium nitrate (emergency flare)
  • methanol (Heet fuel treatment)
  • heat-safe plate (Pyrex or stoneware are good choices)

If you don’t have methanol, a different alcohol or lighter fluid will burn with a comparable blue flame. I used strontium nitrate for red, which I got by cutting open an emergency flare and collecting the powder. You could also order pure strontium nitrate online or use another metal salt that burns red, such as a lithium salt.

Red & Blue Fire Tornado

Red & Blue Fire Tornado (Anne Helmenstine)

Instructions

  1. Set the waste basket on the turntable.
  2. Sprinkle a small amount of strontium nitrate (flare powder) in the middle of your plate.
  3. Set the plate inside the waste basket.
  4. Place the waste basket on the turntable.
  5. Dampen the strontium nitrate with the methanol and pour a small amount around it. Don’t get crazy with the fuel, at least until you know what to expect.
  6. Light the fuel and spin the turntable.
  7. You can let it go out on its own, blow it out, cover it with a pan, or douse it with water. The methanol burns quickly, so putting it out is not generally an issue. However, for the pyros out there who will get carried away, it’s good to know all the various ways you can safely extinguish the flames.

I tried this project a few different ways. It’s possible to completely isolate the two colors from each other by placing the fuel (methanol) in two small metal cups and adding a pinch of strontium nitrate to one of them. You set the cups inside the waste basket, ignite the fuel, and slowly spin the turntable. It’s a spectacular effect, but it’s not the safest activity, since physics will pull the cups outward as you spin the basket. I think you’d get good results sticking the cups to a base using a hot glue gun, but I have not tried it yet.

Make It Red, White & Blue

You can add aluminum or titanium flakes to get white sparkles. Burning a separate pile of Epsom salts with methanol can give you white flames, though in my experience most products have enough sodium contamination to give you more yellow than white. There’s magnesium metal, which would certainly liven things up… not recommending, just saying.

So, of course I had to make a video of this project:

Make a Tabletop Fire Tornado: Red and Blue Flames
Last modified: June 13th, 2014 by Anne Helmenstine