Tomatoes Are Not Guncotton

[Integza] hates tomatoes, but loves rocketry. Thus, he decided to see if he could process his most-loathed fruit into some sort of rocket fuel, or at least something relatively flammable. The experiment ended poorly, but the science behind it is interesting.

The basic idea is that tomatoes are largely made up of water, sugar, and cellulose. Thus, if you nitrate that cellulose, it becomes nitrocellulose, also known as guncotton. Guncotton is was once used to replace gunpowder in firearms, though today it’s often used by magicians to create ashless flashes of flame.

To achieve this, [Integza] first attempted to make regular guncotton using a 50:50 mixture of nitric acid and sulfuric acid. The cotton was then neutralized with a baking soda and water mixture to remove excess acid, and the cotton dried. Once tested, it burned quickly as you’d expect from guncotton.

After removing the sugars from tomatoes with water, soap, hydrogen peroxide, and bleach, the tomatoes were then dried to remove excess water before also getting the acid treatment. They were then similarly neutralized, dried, and tested. One tomato did burn rather quickly, while the others merely fizzled.

One of the reasons behind this may have been due to the composition of the tomatoes. Tomatoes often consist of a mixture of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, these latter components are known for producing inferior guncotton. The ramshackle preparation may have had some effect on the results. Let’s just say and it’s not advisable to work with fuming acids without protective gear and a fume hood, either.

The video’s title claims that the tomatoes were turned into rocket fuel, which is far beyond the actual results of the experiment. However, with some more advanced chemical processing, we could certainly see the fruit becoming a mite more flammable than it was. You’re probably better off just sticking to straight cotton though, for the best results. Video after the break.

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This Message Will Self Destruct… As You Read It?

A group of Harvard chemists have come up with a novel use for fire. Through experimentation, they have been able to build what they call an InfoFuse. As the name implies, it’s essentially a burning fuse that can “transmit” information.

The fuse is made from flash paper, which is paper made from nitrocellulose. Flash paper burns at a relatively constant speed and leaves no smoke or ash, making it ideal for this type of project. The chemists developed a method of conveying information by changing the color of the flame on the paper. You might remember from high school chemistry class that you can change the color of fire by burning different metal salts. For example, burning copper can result in a blue flame. This is the key to the system.

The researchers dotted the flash paper with small bits of metal salts. As the flame reaches these spots, it briefly changes colors. They had to invent an algorithm to convert different color patterns to letters and numbers. It’s sort of like an ASCII table for fire. Their system uses only three colors. The three colors represent eight possible combinations of color at any given time. Just two quick pulses allow the researchers to convey all 26 letters of the English alphabet as well as ten digits and four symbols. In one test, the researchers were able to transmit a 20 character message in less than 4 seconds.

[Ben Krasnow] found the Harvard project and just had to try it out for himself. Rather than use colors to convey information, he took a more simple approach. He started with a basic strip of flash paper, but left large tabs periodically along its length. As the paper burns from end to end, it periodically hits one of these tabs and the flame gets bigger momentarily.

[Ben] uses an optical sensor and an oscilloscope to detect the quantity of light. The scope clearly shows the timing of each pulse of light, making it possible to very slowly convey information via fire. Ben goes further to speculate that it might be possible to build a “fire computer” using a similar method. Perhaps using multiple strips of paper, one can do some basic computational functions and represent the result in fire pulses. He’s looking for ideas, so if you have any be sure to send them his way! Also, be sure to check out Ben’s demonstration video below. Continue reading “This Message Will Self Destruct… As You Read It?”