Science!, Science! For Parties

Science! For Parties!- Flaming Pine Cones of Christmas Cheer

Thanksgiving is over. Christmas lights are being hung around town. Shoppers are bustling about trying to find the perfect present for that special someone. Yep that magical season is upon us again. Get excited because it’s Office Holiday Party Time! And when it comes to office holiday parties I think we all know who the coolest person in the room is, why the person doing mind blowing science tricks of course. So if you want to be the cool cat at your workplace shindig keep reading because this edition of Science! For Parties is going knock your reindeer adorned socks off.

As regular readers of this site know I’m a big believer that fire makes all science cooler. In that spirit today I’m going to explain to you how to make flaming pine cones of holiday cheer. Or put more simply, and with a far less impressive sounding title, I’m going to tell you how you can create pine cones so that when you throw them in your fireplace they will create various types of colored fire.

Important: You need to perform this procedure separately with each of your selected colorants. If you mix them all together the odds are rather overwhelming that they’ll simply cancel each other out. Also never do this trick with a flame you’re preparing food over. Because that would be both toxic and stupid.

Okay with that warning out of the way the first thing you need to do is get a bucket and fill it with water. Enough that you’ll be able to let your pine cones soak. Next add your colorant and mix until it is evenly dissolved in the solution. (If you bought your colorant in liquid form just fill your bucket with that instead of water) Add your pine cones to the mix being sure that they each get a complete coat. Let them soak overnight. In the morning spread them out to dry. Then come party time throw them in the fireplace and watch as your guests marvel at your colorful display. Eventually they will come out of their fire trance to ask you the obvious question and you’ll be ready with your oh so scientific answer.

“Why do the different metals burn with different colors?” Well it has to do with the electron configurations of the individual metals. If you think back to high school chemistry you might remember that electrons exist in particular energy levels called orbitals. When heated those electrons can become “excited” and jump up to higher orbitals before eventually dropping back to their original level. That’s where the difference in color comes into play. When the electron drops down an orbital it releases energy which is sometimes visible to us. The color we see depends on the difference between the two orbitals. Since the metallic compounds have different electron configurations the color they produce is also different. That’s a fairly basic explanation of what’s happening but it should be enough to impress your friends; unless you’re partying with a university science department. In which case, sorry you’re on your own.

Here’s a link to a list of different colorants you can use:


And if you’d like to know a bit more about electrons and orbitals here’s a good place to start:


Until next time I hope you enjoy your flaming pine cones of Christmas cheer and remember to burn responsibly.

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