Cold Phosphorus Smoke/glow

About: I publish my failures and my successes, as my teachers have done before me. I am a member of Foulab, an independent, nonprofit research and engineering group in Montreal. Check out our webpage at

This describes how a combination of red phosphorus, and a dilute solution of a certain oxidizing agent can produce a "heatless" ghostly glow, and smoke.

DISCLAIMER: This is presented as a scientific curiosity and a funny story about the stuff we used to let kids play with. It should not be attempted. If you are going to ignore that advice, then do this outside, wear gloves and goggles, and do not breathe the fumes. Do not try to store the mixture, it may cause an accumulation of phosphine gas.

Red phosphorus reacts violently with many oxidizing agents. Years ago, this was used to make *children's toys*. You could buy sticks of red phosphorus mixed with oxidizing agents and glue as a type of "firecracker". You would hit them, or light an end, and they would immediately go about exploding in all directions, very often causing minor burns.

In hindsight, violent video games are a wonderful alternative to be welcomed.

Anyway, instead of going about playing outside with these as intended when I was young, I decided to investigate how they worked. Being quite the competent chemist for a 13 year old, I decided that the best approach was to dissolve them in water, let the red phosphorus settle out, then decant the liquid off the top and let it dry out in a safe place.

I noticed that if I shook a container containing the mixture, it would produce a small amount of smoke without heating up measurably. I foolishly dipped a finger in it, and discovered that body heat plus friction between two fingers was enough to produce copious smoke from my hands, to my great amusement.

On close inspection, I noticed I also had slight trouble focusing on my hands while the reaction was occurring. In addition to the smoke, there was a very slight shimmering effect, which I decided to investigate by turning off the lights in the room.

Imagine my astonishment in discovering that I was glowing brightly.

While rummaging through some old things recently, I found one of the phosphorus sticks lying about (mostly inactive by now too). I decided to carefully prepare a very small sample and see if I could get an adequate photo for posterity.

The glow is nice and bright in absolute darkness, unfortunately my camera cannot pick it up, so a photo of the smoke effect will have to do.

I have purposely not described the oxidizing agent. If you are determined to know what it is, read chemistry textbooks until it is obvious. You will learn all kinds of wonderful things along the way, I know I did.

I almost entered this project into the "Let it Glow" contest because I thought it would be a refreshing change for you from all from the million LED blinky projects... but I could not get my camera to pick up the phosphorescence (although I could see it clearly with my Mark I Ocular Devices).




    • Party Challenge

      Party Challenge
    • Classroom Science Contest

      Classroom Science Contest
    • Fandom Contest

      Fandom Contest