Ignite steel wool to make a stunning spinning sparkler or to create incredible photographs and light paintings. All you need are a few common materials for this simple project.
Make a Steel Wool Sparkler
You probably have all the materials you need on hand, but if you don’t, they are easy to find at any store.
- Pad of steel wool
- Wire whisk
- Light rope or heavy string
- 9-volt battery or lighter
Look for steel wool pads made of fine fibers because they will burn better than ones with thick fibers. The wire whisk only needs to be large enough to enclose the steel wool. While it won’t be ruined by the project, you might not want to use your favorite kitchen whisk.
- Tease apart the fibers in the steel wool to open up the space between them. The space helps air circulate, which improves the effect.
- Put the steel wool inside the wire whisk.
- Tie a rope or string to the end of the whisk.
- For the best effect, wait until it’s dusk or night to light the “sparkler.” Seek an open, fire-friendly location, such as a beach or parking lot.
- When you’re ready, ignite the steel wool either using a lighter or by touching the battery terminals to the steel wool. Don’t worry— the steel won’t burst into flame. It will simply smolder.
- The magic happens (okay, it’s science) when you start spinning the rope. This feeds the combustion reaction, making the sparkler glow and throw off sparks.
- Stop the sparkler by spinning the rope more slowly until it stops. You can dip the whisk in a bucket of water to completely extinguish the steel and cool the whisk.
How Steel Wool Sparklers Work
All metals burn if enough energy is supplied. In fact, the process occurs naturally all the time. Iron and alloys like steel rust in the presence of air. While this oxidation process is slow, increasing the surface area of the metal and adding heat causes combustion. Spinning the metal feeds it oxygen to support the reaction. This is also the basis for the thermite reaction.
Light Paintings and Photography
Steel wool sparklers produce amazing images. Artists use them to create light paintings, too.
To take a great photograph, you want a time lapse shot. This shows the movement of the sparkler and the sparks. You don’t need a fancy camera. A cell phone works great.
- Turn off the flash.
- Use a tripod or at least rest the phone or camera on a stable surface. If you don’t use a tripod, make sure “image stabilization” is selected, if available.
- Use a low ISO setting like 100 or 200 because there is a lot of light.
- Try an exposure time ranging from a couple of seconds up to 30 seconds. Keep in mind, the longer the time, the more light you’ll get.
- Think about your location. Steel wool sparklers outline enclosed areas, like doorways, tunnels, rocks, and arches. They reflect beautifully in lakes and puddles.
- Again, make certain your area is clear of flammable materials, pets, and other people before you start spinning the rope.
- It’s a good idea to have water or a fire extinguisher handy. This goes for any fire science project.
- The sparkler tosses out sparks, which may land on you. Wear clothing made from natural fibers (cotton, wool, silk, linen) rather than synthetics (nylon, polyester, etc.). Synthetic fabrics melt at a low temperature.
- You may wish to wear a hat. This isn’t just about the sparks. You don’t want your hair tangled in the whisk or rope.
- Wear glasses to protect your eyes from stray sparks.
- This project should be performed under responsible adult supervision.