Steel wool, like all metals, burns when enough energy is supplied. It's a simple oxidation reaction, like rust formation, except faster. This is the basis for the thermite reaction, but it's even easier to burn a metal when it has a lot of surface area. Here's a fun fire science project where you spin burning steel wool to create a fantastic lights effect. It's simple and makes an ideal subject for science photographs.
Spinning Steel Wool Lights Materials
You can get these materials at just about any store. If you have a choice of steel wool pads, go for ones with thin fibers, since these burn the best.
- a pad of steel wool
- wire whisk
- heavy string or a light rope
- 9-volt battery
What You Do
- Gently pull apart the steel wool a bit to increase the space between the fibers. This allows more air to circulate, improving the effect.
- Put the steel wool inside the wire whisk.
- Attach a string to the end of the whisk.
- Wait until dusk or dark and find a clear, fire-safe area. When you are ready, touch both terminals of the 9-volt battery to the steel wool. The electrical short will ignite the wool. It will smolder and glow, not burst into flame, so don't be too concerned.
- Clear the area around you, hold the rope, and start spinning it. The faster you spin it, the more air you'll get to feed the combustion reaction.
- To stop the lights, stop spinning the rope. You can dunk the whisk in a bucket of water to make sure it's completely extinguished and to cool the metal.
Taking a Great Spinning Steel Wool Photograph
The effect can be used to produce truly amazing images. For a quick and simple picture, just use your cell phone. Turn off the flash and set the exposure for a few seconds or longer, if that is an option.
For a serious photograph you can proudly display on your wall:
- Use a tripod.
- Choose a low ISO like 100 or 200, since there is a lot of light.
- Select an exposure time from a few seconds up to 30 seconds.
- For really cool effects, work on a reflective surface, like water, or spin the steel wool inside a tunnel or arch. If the area is enclosed, the sparks will outline it in your photo.
It's fire, so this is an adult-only project. Perform the project on a beach or in a parking lot or some other place free from flammable material. It's a good idea to wear a hat to protect your hair from stray sparks and glasses to protect your eyes.
Need more excitement? Try it!