Flame colours - a demonstration
This demonstration experiment can be used to show the flame colours given by alkali metal, alkaline earth metal, and other metal, salts. This is a spectacular version of the ‘flame tests’ experiment that can be used with chemists and non-chemists alike.
This experiment must be done as a demonstration. It takes about ten minutes if all is prepared in advance.
Preparation includes making up the spray bottles and conducting a risk assessment.
Your employer's risk assessment must be customised by determining where to spray the flame to guarantee the audience’s safety.
Samples of the following metal salts (no more than 1 g of each):
Lithium chloride (HARMFUL)
Copper sulfate (HARMFUL, DANGEROUS TO THE ENVIRONMENT)
Ethanol (HIGHLY FLAMMABLE), approx 10 cm3 for each metal salt
or IDA (industrial denatured alcohol) (HIGHLY FLAMMABLE, HARMFUL)
Refer to Health & Safety and Technical notes section below for additional information.
Trigger pump operated spray bottles (Note 2)
Heat resistant mat(s)
Hand-held spectroscopes or diffraction gratings (optional)
Health & Safety and Technical notes
Carry out the whole experiment in a well vebtilated area you have previously shown to be safe. Wear eye protection. Ensure that the spray can be safely directed away from yourself and the audience.
Sodium chloride, NaCl(s) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
Potassium chloride, KCl(s) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard. Potassium iodide and lithium iodide can be used instead. As a general rule, chlorides are usually suggested as they tend to be more volatile and more readily available. These two are in fact a little more volatile than the chloride, and potassion iodide is certainly likely to be available - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
Lithium chloride, LiCl(s), (HARMFUL) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
Copper sulfate, CuSO4(s), (HARMFUL, DANGEROUS TO THE ENVIRONMENT) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
Ethanol, CH3CH2OH(l), (HIGHLY FLAMMABLE). IDA (industrial denatured alcohol) (HIGHLY FLAMMABLE, HARMFUL) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard. Make a saturated solution of each salt in about 10 cm3 ethanol. To do this, add the salt to the ethanol in small quantities, with stirring, until no more will dissolve – often only a few mg of salt will be needed.
1 Other metal salts (e.g. those of calcium and barium) can also be used provided an appropriate risk assessment is carried out. Barium chloride (TOXIC), calcium chloride (IRRITANT) and strontium chloride (IRRITANT) all give different colours - see CLEAPSS Hazcards. The chlorides of metals are the best but other salts also work - carry out an appropraite risk assessment.
2 Place each salt solution in a spray bottle and label the bottle. The solutions can be retained for future use. They can be stored in the plastic bottles for several weeks at least without apparent deterioration of the bottles. Spray bottles of the type used for products such as window cleaner should be used. These piston-operated spray bottles should be emptied, cleaned thoroughly and finally rinsed with distilled water. Ideally, one bottle is needed for each metal salt. Never use spray bottles with a rubber bulb - the flame may flash back into the container.
a Darken the room if possible.
b Light the Bunsen and adjust it to give a non-luminous, roaring flame (air hole open).
c Conduct a preliminary spray in a safe direction away from the Bunsen flame.
Adjust the nozzles of the spray bottles to give a fine mist.
d Choose one spray bottle. Spray the solution into the flame in the direction you have rehearsed. Repeat with the other bottles.
e A spectacular coloured flame or jet should be seen in each case. The colour of the flame depends on the metal in the salt used.
f As an extension, students can view the flames through hand-held spectroscopes or diffraction gratings in order to see the line spectrum of the element. (Diffraction gratings work better. A better way to produce a steady source of light is to use discharge tubes from the Physics Department – with a suitable risk assessment.)
The colours that should be seen are:
- sodium – yellow-orange (typical ‘street lamp’ yellow)
- potassium – purple-pink, traditionally referred to as ‘lilac’ (often contaminated with small amounts of sodium)
- lithium – crimson red
- copper – green/blue
- calcium – orange-red (probably the least spectacular)
- barium – apple green
- strontium – crimson
The electrons in the metal ions are excited to higher energy levels by the heat. When the electrons fall back to lower energy levels, they emit light of various specific wavelengths (the atomic emission spectrum). Certain bright lines in these spectra cause the characteristic flame colour.
The colour can be used to identify the metal or its compounds (eg sodium vapour in a street lamp). The colours of fireworks are, of course, due to the presence of particular metal salts.
Health & Safety checked June 2007
The University of Edinburgh - gives a simple explanation of flame colours in terms of excited electrons.
Creative Chemistry - gives another slightly different version, involving establishing some flame colours and then using them to identify unknowns.
Page last updated on 02 December 2011