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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Black Snakes from Baking Soda and Sugar

By June 10, 2013

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black snake (ISTC)Black snakes, sometimes called glow worms, are among my favorite small fireworks. These are small tablets that you light, using a punk or a lighter, that burn to produce long black 'snakes' of ash. They produce some smoke (which had a characteristic, probably toxic odor), but no fire or explosion. The original fireworks used to contain salts of a heavy metal (such as mercury), so while they were marketed for kids to play with, they really weren't that much safer than conventional fireworks, just dangerous in a different way. However, there is a safe way to make black snakes. You can heat baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) with sugar (sucrose) to produce carbon dioxide gas that puffs up black carbon ash. Here's how to do it. I also have a video explaining how to make black snakes.

Soda & Sugar Black Snake Materials
  • sand
  • alcohol or fuel oil (I didn't have any high-proof alcohol on hand, so I used lighter fluid left over from the handheld fireballs project)
  • baking soda
  • sugar (I used powdered sugar, but you can grind table sugar in a coffee grinder)
Make Snakes
  • Mix 4 parts powdered sugar with 1 part baking soda. (I used 4 tsp sugar and 1 tsp baking soda.)
  • Make a mound with the sand. Push a depression into the middle of the sand.
  • Pour the alcohol or other fuel into the sand to wet it.
  • Pour the sugar and soda mixture into the depression.
  • Ignite the mound, using a lighter or match.
At first, you'll get a flame and some small scattered blackened balls. Once the reaction gets going, the carbon dioxide will puff up the carbonate into the continuously extruded 'snake'. Actually, you don't even need the sand. I tried this project using baking soda and sugar in a metal mixing bowl, added the fuel, and lit the mixture. It worked fine. The old firework snakes had a distinct smell. These have a smell too... burnt marshmallows! If you use pure ethanol, sugar, and baking soda, then there is nothing toxic about this project. One caution: Don't add fuel to the burning snake, since you risk igniting the alcohol stream.

How Black Snakes Work
The sugar and baking soda snake proceeds according to the following chemical reactions, where sodium bicarbonate breaks down into sodium carbonate, water vapor, and carbon dioxide gas while burning the sugar in oxygen produces water vapor and carbon dioxide gas. The snake is carbonate with black carbon particles:
2 NaHCO3 -> Na2CO3 + H2O + CO2
C2H5OH + 3 O2 -> 2 CO2 + 3 H2O

These instructions were adapted from a tutorial given on Boing Boing which in turn came from a Russian site. The Russian site goes on to suggest two additional ways to make chemical snakes:

Ammonium Nitrate Black Snake
This works the same way as the sugar and baking soda snake, except you use ammonium nitrate (niter) instead of sugar. Mix one part ammonium nitrate and one part baking soda. This recipe is more like what you would see in commercial black snake fireworks, which are supposedly composed of soda with nitrated naphthalenes and linseed oil. It's another very safe demonstration, though not safe enough to eat, like sugar and baking soda.

Ammonium Dichromate Green Snake
The green snake is a variation on the ammonium dichromate volcano. The volcano is a cool chemistry demonstration (orange sparks, green ash, smoke), but it's a chemistry-lab-only demonstration (not safe for kids at all) because the chromium compound is toxic. The green soda snakes are made from:

  • two parts of ammonium nitrate
  • one part of powdered sugar
  • one part of ammonium dichromate
Mix the ingredients, add a small amount of water, and roll the result into a snake shape (gloves please!). Allow the snake to dry (the tutorial suggests using a hairdryer to speed the process). Light one end of the snake. In this case, an orange snake burns to green ash. It's worth knowing how to do this demonstration if you have ammonium dichromate and ammonium nitrate on hand, otherwise let the Russian photos suffice and play with the sugar and baking soda snakes instead. Another (spectacular) form of black carbon snake results from reacting sugar and sulfuric acid.
How Fireworks Work | Baking Soda Volcano

Comments

February 11, 2008 at 8:02 pm
(1) christina says:

can you do it with wet sand or no? or else it was a fun experiment.

February 19, 2008 at 8:23 am
(2) chemistry says:

Wet with something flammable, sure. If you mean sand that is wet from water… I think it would cause problems. I used slightly damp sand so that it could be molded into a mound. That was fine, but too much moisture will put out the fire.

March 24, 2009 at 11:42 pm
(3) jhen says:

what happen when sugar burn?explain
what happen when baking soda burn?expain

December 30, 2010 at 5:48 am
(4) Renee says:

What ethanol did you use? I’m ready to go buy some.

December 30, 2010 at 8:38 am
(5) chemistry says:

Renee, I used lighter fluid. High proof ethanol like 151 rum would work as would 90% rubbing alcohol.

January 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm
(6) renee says:

Hi,

I had vodka and measured first 3 tsp and then added 5 more with the matches going out. Now we’re ready to try some 70% rubbing alcohol. I guess my next question would be how much alcohol to use?

May 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm
(7) Tanya says:

I have tried this several times with different types of sand, lighter fluid, and 70% rubbing alcohol and it has not worked once. I followed the directions just as you wrote them.

October 18, 2011 at 2:03 am
(8) Adarsh says:

try kerosene

October 18, 2011 at 2:00 am
(9) Adarsh says:

it works thanks !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
it is awesome

February 29, 2012 at 11:00 am
(10) MegaSeniko says:

Lighter Fluid Expells/Epires All Its Energy Pretty Moderately. Go To A Local AUTO Parts Store, (PEP BOYS, AutoZONE, etc.) Purchase A Bottle Of “SEAFOAM” Gasoline Additive, And You Will “NOT” Have To ADD Any More Fuel During The Process. (And End Up With The Fire Running Up The Stream As Stated!) The Sand Can Be Replaced With Salt, Then Placed In COOKWARE For Transport, Easy To Carry, To Exstinguish, To Dispose Of When Concluded… (Instead Of A Bunch Of Mess All Over The Yard,,, Because You’ll Probably Do It A “F_E_W” Times! -^-/\_/`\,~~^-^/*\__/“-~^-.._/\__/“`-~-~^-.~^-,/\___,/-^~./*-~,.-`\/\_.
1 oz.of SEAFOAM, Will Ignite All Of The Snake Material,,, So They’ll Be No Pauses, etc. (Because You’ll Need A Sufficiant Amount Of Energy To Ignite, And Consume All The Material Completely.) Confectionate Sugar Is Choice!

January 6, 2013 at 12:29 pm
(11) lilscience says:

I pressed together the sugar, baking soda, and lighter fluid together. works pretty well, no sand needed :3

August 24, 2013 at 5:05 am
(12) chem lover says:

ma’am! i tried this experiment for hours..but all that i found was ashes..
i never got a puffed snake!! what should i be doing?? will addition of yeast help me?? i need your reply asap!

December 10, 2013 at 3:20 pm
(13) Caleb says:

This is awesome thank you

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