“Why haven’t we done any dragon experiments yet,” asked my 9-year old son closing one of the Dragon Masters books. My oldest two kids are crazy about this series and have read all seven books a few times.
“What kind of science experiment do you have in mind?” I asked cautiously. I was still scrubbing silly string off my back porch after their last experiment.
“Fire,” said my son with certainty, “Dragon Fire.”
My first reaction was No way! (I’m very cautious when it comes to fire), but after I thought about it and talked to my science friends I came to the conclusion that it would be a fun way to show kids how mixing ingredients together can lead to an interesting chemical reaction. Once I got in the spirit of this experiment, it somehow turned from a science lesson into a geography and history lesson too!
If you can’t wait to make the Dragon Fire scroll down to the bottom of this post. It’s a perfect summer experiment for dragon and fire enthusiasts of all ages. But if you are looking to turn this into a lesson read on.
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The Science of Fire
We started our “lesson” by looking at a picture of the fire-breathing dragon in a book. “How is he doing it?” I asked. My kids had lots of ideas. My favorite suggestion was that when a dragon is angry, it can create a spark by rubbing its teeth together and the dragon’s saliva becomes a highly flammable material if the dragon burps up some stomach acid.
“What is fire made of?” was my next question. When my kids were all out of ideas, I said, “Fire is the result of a chemical reaction. Do you know chemistry?” We already had a couple of discussions about chemistry, but it is always a good idea to go over it again.
The Chemistry of Fire
Chemistry is a study of everything: a piece of Lego in your hand, a cup of milk in front of you on the table, and the composition of your blood. Everything in the world, everything in the universe, including you, is made out of matter and energy. So, chemistry is a branch of science that deals with energy and matter and the way energy and matter interact with each other.
Ask your kids: “What are you most thrilled about in your life?” If your kids are like mine, they will probably say something like a new Lego set, swimming class, new sneakers, books…. Skillfully link up your kids’ answers to different branches of chemistry: biochemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry, and analytical chemistry. \
For example, I told my kids that the swimming pool water is full of pathogenic organisms. To keep you safe the swimming pools have to add disinfectants to the water that kill bacteria but do not harm you. So, biochemists are the very people who study those viruses and microorganisms in the pool that can make you sick. And then organic chemists are the ones who work hard on creating detergents and disinfectants for the pool. The idea is to show kids that science is all around them.
What color is dragon fire?
My kids decided that it would probably be yellow. I explained that the reason a typical fire appears yellow is due to the glow of small particles of soot. But the color of the fire can change depending on what is burning or how hot it is. For example, boron-containing compounds have been known to cause flames to emit green color.
“Can we do it, mom!? Can we make a green fire?”
“We can try!”
Their Yays were heard over a three-mile radius.
If your kids pick a different color here is the list for you to consider. I steered my kids toward green color by mentioning it first because we already had Boric Acid in the house. But you might have excellent results with red or purple.
Our question for the day became: Can Boric Acid turn our fire green?
Boric Acid (Geography)
You are sure to catch your kids’ interest by mentioning that Boric Acid is often found in volcanic districts. Get out a map of the USA and find Nevada. Did you know that the state of Nevada is full of volcanic fields and extinct volcanoes? Read together or summarize for kids the following article from The Science News Journal 20 Ancient supervolcanoes discovered in Utah and Nevada. While you are at it, don’t forget to find Utah on the map too, and trace it with a finger.
Boric Acid (History)
Besides volcanic districts, Boric Acid is also found in seawater, in plants (especially in fruits), and in many naturally occurring minerals like borax. Even though Ancient Greeks understood the power of Boric Acid to preserve foods and even used it for cleaning, it wasn’t officially discovered until the 18th century. It all started with the guy by the name of Wilhelm Homberg.
Wilhelm Homberg was born in Indonesia (find it on the map) where his father, a Saxon (South England) gentleman, was serving as an officer. At 18 he came back to Europe to study. First, he studied law and worked as an advocate in Germany. Then, he got an itch to study medicine and worked as a physician in Rome and Paris where he subsequently became a teacher of physics and chemistry (lots of places to find on a map).
During his scientific work, he was intrigued by the green color produced in flames by certain substances. In 1702 he extracted Boric Acid from Borax and called them “the sedative salts of Homberg.” Today Boric Acid is used as an antiseptic, insecticide, flame retardant, and preservative. We always had Boric Acid in our home when I was growing up because it was used for ear infections and to keep cockroaches away.
You can buy a medical grade boric acid online, but you won’t find anything smaller than a pound. One pound of Boric Acid is much more than most people need so you can get Roach Away instead, which is a household insecticide that is 99% boric acid.
Record Sheet (The Scientific Method)
Before you begin the experiment, take a few minutes to print out an Experiment Record Sheet. I have a simple one in black and white if you are trying to save on ink and a fancy one in color, which is my favorite (I once bought a Slavic wallpaper collection and still use it every chance I got). You can also print out our Scientific Method cheat sheet. Sometimes it helps to have it in front of our eyes. (Reminder: the password for the free library is at the end of your newsletters. If you don’t receive my newsletters. Why not? I’m sweet and charming. Sign up here).
Remind kids what a Scientific Method is and why we use it. Start with the question – What do we want to learn from this experiment? Encourage kids to take a guess at what the answer to that question might be. Then gather the materials and conduct the experiment, take some time to discuss what happened during the experiment and whether it answered their question. My kids like to draw their observations.
The only safety precautions to consider are the common sense ones. Don’t stick hands in the fire, don’t let kids fall into the fire, make the fire in a fireproof container, don’t eat or drink any substances involved and make sure this is an outdoor project.
With the latest slime craze, there is a lot of talk about borax containing products in children’s experiments. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, borax is often one of the ingredients in slime recipes. In this experiment, your skin doesn’t come in direct contact with boric acid (adult uses a spoon to add it to the pot). Obviously, do it on a windless day and away from food and drinks.
What you need
Boric Acid and Fire are the two main ingredients.
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We didn’t want to do our experiment inside our grill and we can’t have a campfire in our backyard. So I made a fire in a stoneware container and used HEET as the fuel for our fire. HEET Gas-line Antifreeze and Water Remover is available everywhere and used in camping stoves. So, if you following our steps then your full list of required items is:
Spoon (I felt safe to use a plastic takeout spoon since it doesn’t come in contact with fire)
Measuring cup and measuring spoon (optional)
What to do
- Set the heat-safe container on a heat-safe surface outside.
- Pour a cup of HEET into the container.
- Sprinkle 8 tablespoons of Boric Acid into the liquid and mix it in really well.
- Ignite with the lighter.
We had about 10 minutes to enjoy our green dragon fire. If you don’t see enough green, then sprinkle in some more Borax Acid. Don’t forget to finish the day by getting out your Record Sheet. Look at your question and hypothesis. Discuss what happened during your experiment and whether you answered your question. Invite kids to draw their observations and remind them that science is fun.
Note 1: I listed a measuring cup and a measuring spoon as optional because your best estimate will work just fine.
Note 2: After the fire burns out the bottom of your container might have a white residue. Washing it down the drain is safe. Boric Acid is a good disinfectant.
“I remember reading that dragon’s breath smells like rotten eggs,” mentioned my oldest the other day. “Mom! What do you think of another dragon experiment? This one with rotten eggs!”
(Loud thud as mom fainted).