A cotton handkerchief is doused in a liquid and set on fire, but the handkerchief doesn't burn.
cotton handkerchief or peso bill
50% solution of isopropyl alcohol and water
small amount of salt (sodium chloride)
matches or cigarette lighter
tongs, at least 30 cm long
bucket of water (recommended)
coin and cigarette (optional)
A brightly colored, cotton handkerchief is taken from the pocket, or better yet, from a volunteer planted in the audience and is soaked in a liquid and set on fire. While holding the handkerchief with tongs and watching the blue flame, one points out that the handkerchief is not burning. Finallythe handkerchief is snuffed out with a quick jerk or doused in a bucket of water and passed around for inspection or returned to the volunteer. For more drama, an assistant can put out the flame with a fireextinguisher. The volunteer can be asked to hold up the handkerchief for everyone to see.In this demonstration, the liquid used is a 50/50 mixture of isopropyl alcohol and water. Methanol or ethanol can be substituted for the isopropyl alcohol. Some salt in the solution will help to make theflame more visible. Other combustible materials, such as paper, can also be used in place of thehandkerchief. A dollar bill provided by someone in the audience is especially effective. Notecarefully the purity of the alcohol before mixing. Rubbing alcohol as sold in drug stores is often 30%or more water. One could repeat the demonstration with varying mixtures of alcohol and water. Toomuch water will prevent the alcohol from burning, and too little water will allow the cloth or paper tochar.In a variation of the demonstration, a dry cotton cloth is wrapped tightly around a coin, and a lightedcigarette is touched to the cloth. The coin absorbs the heat and keeps the temperature below thepoint where the cloth burns.
This demonstration illustrates the variation in the temperature required to support combustion indifferent substances. The alcohol burns at a temperature below the kindling temperature of thecotton. In addition, the heating and vaporization of the water removes heat and prevents the clothfrom burning.
Although the flame is relatively cool, it is capable of producing severe burns. Hold the handkerchief with a pair of very long tongs (30 cm or more) while it is ignited. Plan ahead to have a way toextinguish it before the water is completely vaporized or if it inadvertently drops to the floor whileburning. Isopropyl alcohol can damage the eyes severely.