1. Education
Send to a Friend via Email

Discuss in my forum

Nitrocellulose (Ben Mills)If you're a chemistry enthusiast with an interest in fire or history (or both), you probably ought to know how to make your own nitrocellulose. Nitrocellulose is also known as guncotton or flashpaper, depending on its intended purpose. Magicians and illusionists use flash paper for a fire special effect. The exact same material is called guncotton and may be used as a propellant for firearms and rockets. Nitrocellulose was used as a film base for movies and x-rays. It may be mixed with acetone to make nitrocellulose lacquer, which was used on automobiles, aircraft, and musical instruments. One unsuccessful use of nitrocellulose was to make faux ivory billiard balls. The camphored nitrocellulose (celluloid) balls would sometimes explode upon impact, producing a sound much like that of a gunshot. As you might imagine, this didn't go over well in gunslinger saloons with pool tables.

I doubt you will want to make your own exploding billiard balls, but you might want to try nitrocellulose as a model rocket propellant, as flash paper, or as a lacquer base. Nitrocellulose is extremely easy to make, but be sure to read through the instructions carefully before proceeding. As far as safety goes: Any protocol which involves strong acids should be performed by qualified persons wearing proper safety gear. Nitrocellulose cannot be stored for long periods of time, as it gradually decomposes into a flammable powder or goo (which is why many old films have not survived to the present day). Nitrocellulose has a low autoignition temperature, so keep it away from heat or flame (until you are ready to activate it). It does not require oxygen to burn, so once it ignites you cannot put out the fire with water. With all that in mind:

Nitrocellulose Materials

Christian Friedrich Schönbein's procedure has been widely used. It calls for 1 part cotton to 15 parts acid.

  • concentrated nitric acid
  • concentrated sulfuric acid
  • cotton balls (almost pure cellulose)
Nitrocellulose Preparation
  1. Chill the acids below 0°C.
  2. In a fume hood, mix equal parts nitric and sulfuric acid in a beaker.
  3. Drop cotton balls into the acid. You can tamp them down using a glass stirring rod. Don't use metal.
  4. Allow the nitration reaction to proceed for about 15 minutes (Schönbein's time was 2 minutes), then run cold tap water into the beaker to dilute the acid. Allow the water to run for a while.
  5. Turn off the water and add a bit of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to the beaker. The sodium bicarbonate will bubble as it neutralizes the acid.
  6. Using a glass rod or gloved finger, swirl around the cotton and add more sodium bicarbonate. You can rinse with more water. Continue adding sodium bicarbonate and washing the nitrated cotton until bubbling is no longer observed. Careful removal of the acid will greatly enhance the stability of the nitrocellulose.
  7. Rinse the nitrated cellulose and allow it to dry in a cool location.
Shreds of nitrocellulose will burst into flame if exposed to the heat of a burner or a match. It doesn't take much (either heat or nitrocellulose), so don't get carried away! If you want actual flash paper, you can nitrate ordinary paper (which is primarily cellulose) in the same manner as cotton.


November 29, 2009 at 1:31 pm
(1) marc says:

not a stupid question, but why (what exactly happens) do you not use a metallic stiring rod?

July 1, 2011 at 1:06 am
(2) david says:

depending on the metal, the acid might eat away or corrode the metal as you stir it. this will certainly contaminate the mixture as well as lessen the strength of the your acid.

December 15, 2009 at 4:37 pm
(3) Mark says:

One reason is that the acid will react with metal, not glass.

October 4, 2011 at 5:49 pm
(4) Nick says:

ahem….actually glass is minutely corroded by water and certainly, although minutely corroded by acids (especially conc. HNO3 and H2SO4) The metal stirring rod will dissolve and react with the acid to form a metal salt.

August 18, 2010 at 2:33 pm
(5) Chemist says:

Is the above method will yield me Nitrocellulose (paint grade)? If not then how to obtain Nitrocellulose (Paint Grade)? Please answer me via email

Email: blue.oceanx@yahoo.com

August 23, 2010 at 9:03 am
(6) mhanes says:

a note to Chemist,

the only difference is that “paint grade” Nitrocellulose is dissolved in acetone.

BTW, that is what was used to make the Hindenburg leak proof.
It also made it into a giant flare.

February 16, 2011 at 7:25 pm
(7) Ryan says:

I think it’s good to note that adding water to concentrated levels of acid especially Nitric and Sulfuric can BE VERY DANGEROUS if not done carefully… acid should ALWAYS be added into water not the other way around. Since the experiment calls for the water second, people especially kids, should take extra care in what they mix together.

March 11, 2011 at 10:47 am
(8) Novle says:

Can this Nitrocellulose (Flash Paper) can be dissolved in Ethanol or Methyl Ethyl Ketone or Ethyl Acetate?

How much this Nitrogen content will this Nitrocellulose have, if I make it by the above mentioned method.

Please answer my questions via email: novle.novle@yahoo.com

April 10, 2011 at 2:26 pm
(9) Jamisicus6 says:

There is a risk of the metal Stirring rod causing a spark, which could make a very big and loud explosion. So don’t use a metal stirring rod unless you really dislike your hand/fingers.

June 9, 2011 at 7:37 am
(10) Jim says:

“I doubt you will want to make your own exploding billiard balls,”

You obviously do not know the kind of people who can type “Nitrocellulose” into a google search.

June 27, 2011 at 7:50 pm
(11) Victor says:

In your article you stated that “Nitrocellulose cannot be stored for long periods of time, as it gradually decomposes into a flammable powder or goo…” I would like to make paper bullets using black powder and flash paper to aid on loading my revolver at the range. If I make or order flash paper how long could I keep the paper or bullets without them decomposing?

January 7, 2012 at 4:19 pm
(12) me says:

the metal will react and you will get some hyrogen ause a usefull explosive

February 7, 2012 at 2:35 pm
(13) Michael Faraday says:

acids corrode glass. I suppose you could instead stir the liquids in the cup of your hand with your finger to avoid glass contamination.

February 20, 2012 at 1:49 pm
(14) JP says:

The reaction of acids with metal is exothermic, will heat and accelerate the process, possibly to the point of boiling and splashing. Even more dangerous, is the instruction of adding water to the acids in the beaker! This is known for causing havoc. The cotton should be removed from the beaker and rinsed in a plastic container with large amounts of water to prevent sudden temperature rise.

March 10, 2012 at 11:09 pm
(15) patrick says:

The acids won’t react with the silicon, in order to to a hydrogenation on silicon you need to react it with something else first, usually magnesium. Basic Ochem, raw silicon won’t pick up a hydronium ion very easily.

June 5, 2012 at 3:49 am
(16) Ronn says:

Hey guyz! i found something terrible! my Nitrocellulose got dissolved in nitration solution. also the nitration solution accidently fell on my palm but nothing happent! btw those chemicals were of e.merck’s so its not fake…i did every thing correct. sulphuric acid burnt my palm and so nitric acid but the mixture didn’t. the cotton used was also clean and medical one but with expiration date gone :p plz tell Wats the problem!

August 14, 2012 at 9:11 pm
(17) einstein says:

glass is inert material and it can’t corode or sissolve in acid not even a bit

August 23, 2012 at 11:51 am
(18) Matt says:

Actually, there are several acids that can corrode glass, especially hydrofluoric acid. Glass is not an entirely inert material.

November 21, 2012 at 12:33 am
(19) Kipcay says:

Hi there

Excellent method, though i use KNO3 not nitric acid :D
now to my question: is it possible to nitrate pure glucose, so stuff like corn syrup?

would appreciate any help,
Kip :)

January 20, 2013 at 12:25 am
(20) Two-Fingers says:

Alfred Nobel applied for a Patent on how to dilute concentrated Nitrating Acids. NEVER EVER ad water to a Concentrated Acid mixture, but always the Acid slowly to a much larger volume of Water. Hotspots wile mixing, may turn water into steam, expelling the acid mix into your face, maiming or blinding you due to the high heat formation of dissolving the two fluids.

Nitrocellulose that has even the smallest amount of nitrating acid contaminants, will eventually Auto-Catalytically decompose, Ignite, explode, and burn down your house or lab, killing you, and or other people in the process.

Nitrocellulose was band for many years due to spontaneous explosions, and almost triggered a full-scale war between nations due to these unknown properties, destroying entire munition magazines, and killing many people. The death penalty was proposed against those dealing in this extremely dangerous, and killer of many, material. Only after a lengthy and time consuming purification processes developed thereafter, was this monster tamed, and commercialized again.

Highly concentrated mixed nitrating acid, turns the flesh of a finger yellow after a short dip. The skin dies off, and can be pulled off like a glove, exposing the bare bone. Wounds are excruciatingly painful, like that of Perchloric Acid, heal very very slowly due to dead tissue, or never ever again. You are going to have to live with the damage, or get a skin transplant. Forget your eyes!

Just adding my two cents, hoping that even only one accident may be prevented, in storing this un-stabilized, or even slightly contaminated material at home near to flammable, and or in tightly contained containers (a powerful bomb!). The higher the temperature, the more contamination, the faster this material will spontaneously go off.

April 15, 2013 at 11:27 am
(21) ew crew says:

Based on the comments I’ve read this sounds very dangerous. also some of you say that you SOULDN’T add water to the acids while Anne up the top says you should. I would also like to point out that an exploding billiard ball would be SO cool. I need one B)

April 15, 2013 at 11:33 am
(22) ew crew says:

I’d like to point out that an exploding billiard ball is so cool that I’ve just made a whole table of them :) Still haven’t exploded:( getting the lighter out now B)

August 8, 2013 at 11:44 pm
(23) Ben says:

I can’t find any exploding billiard balls on ebay so I may have to make my own. If a ball explodes, is that a table scratch?

September 14, 2013 at 12:47 pm
(24) Idetrorce says:

very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

November 30, 2013 at 10:41 pm
(25) Holly says:

Safety saying from the laboratory:

“..all was calm and placid, until someone added water to the acid!”

December 15, 2013 at 12:15 pm
(26) Caution says:


DO NOT pour water into the acid after the reaction is complete. Instead, gradually pour the acid off into a volume of water five times greater than the volume of acid, stirring while you do it. Then you can add baking soda until it no longer fizzes and then start flushing with water to rinse the finished nitrocellulose.

Combining concentrated sulfuric acid with water is a highly exothermic event, as the sulfuric acid molecule grabs water, releasing the potential energy difference between the anhydrous and hydrated state as heat. Tearing water (hydrogen and oxygen) out of organic molecules is how sulfuric acid dissolves them. Put paper or cotton into concentrated sulfuric acid, and it turns black as the loss of hydrogen and oxygen leaves carbon behind. Add sulfuric acid slowly to water while stirring, and the solution gets very hot. Steaming, scalding hot if the ratios are right. This is why an ice water bath is desirable to have around the water container you are adding sulfuric acid to.

What is sold as concentrated nitric acid is actually a negative azeotrope consisting of about 32% water and 68% nitric acid. Pure nitric acid boils below the boiling point of water, and, exposed to air, fumes off nitric oxide. The fact the azeotrope is negative means the combination raises the boiling point above that of either constituent (the water and the nitric acid)—in this case to about 120°C (248°F)—making the combination more stable to store and handle. Higher concentrations of nitric acid are called fuming nitric acid because of the nitric oxide that evolves from its surface as red fumes.

But here’s the bottom line. Your nitric acid has some water in it, and the sulfuric acid will grab that water and release heat. So you want to ADD THE SULFURIC ACID TO THE NITRIC ACID and NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.

That water is important in another way. Once the sulfuric acid has some, it is no longer able to dissolve the cellulose (cotton, paper, cloth) you put in directly. Instead the cellulose nitrates and the sulfuric acid gets additional water released from that reaction as the nitric acid is consumed. If you don’t have the sulfuric acid present to scavenge water, you get we nitrocellulose with small amounts of nitric acid dissolved in the water inside the nitrocellulose. This doesn’t wash away in rinse water. Instead, after the nitrocellulose is dry, it gradually permeates out, concentrating the acid left behind, making the nitrocellulose unstable. This is when it tends to break down, creating additional acids that accelerate the break down still further. This can lead to spontaneous combustion in pure nitrocellulose. Commercial gunpowder based on nitrocellulose has compounds called stabilizers added to scavenge acids from breakdown due to heat or age.

March 10, 2014 at 10:34 pm
(27) Jess says:

So I have come across a problem. Even when the acids are chilled in a bath of ice and Sodium/Calcium Chloride, my cotton still decides to melt. It doesn’t start a runaway reaction where it produces brown NO2 gas and gets hot, but it turns literally into clear gel. What exactly have i done wrong? My acids are concentrated with minimal water in both Nitric and Sulphuric. Since I produce my Nitric Acid from Sodium Nitrate and conc. Sulphuric Acid and filtering the resultant acid, would I still need to add extra Sulphuric acid to catalyze the cotton nitration or just my nitric?

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.