Hail To The Chief: The Science Behind The Smoke

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Yesterday, a new pope was named. The third in my lifetime. The signal came from likely the most popular chimney smoke in the world. That chimney is located on top of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. This year, what made this decision so unique is the true distinction of the smoke’s color.

In past elections, the church would burned wet straw with the paper ballots to give the smoke its dark color. However, wet straw burned first followed by the paper ballots may produce a grey smoke, not black smoke. This has sometimes led to quite a bit of confusion, with people thinking that a new Pope had been selected if the dark smoke was not dark enough.”

This time, the color has to be just right or millions of onlookers will be fooled. Here’s where high school chemistry comes in. To eliminate the confusion cartridges of potassium perchlorate, anthracene (a component of coal tar) and sulfur went into the black smoke. This would naturally indicated that a pope has not been chosen. The white smoke, which signals that there is a new pope is made up of potassium chlorate, lactose and chloroform resin (a vapor). The ballots area burned in a two-stove system. When the ballots are burned in the older stove, it triggers an electronic, smoke-producing device outfitted on a second, more modern stove. The device releases a container of one of the two chemical mixtures.

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Here’s another known fact. If you ever had to put out a camp fire quickly with water you noticed it turns into steam or a white smoke appearance.

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Meteorologically speaking, when a vapor is cooled and condensed we begin to see it in the form of a white cloud. ¬†How ’bout that! ¬†Chemistry and meteorology thrown into one.