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Good Question: How Does The Vatican Make Colored Smoke?

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – For 100 years, the Vatican’s smoke signal has rarely been a black or white matter.

Black means no Pope, white means the Cardinals have selected a Pope. But how does the Vatican get the smoke to be the right color?

For the first time, the Vatican actually released the recipe it uses.

Inside the Sistine Chapel, there are two ovens.

In one oven, the Cardinals burn their hand-written ballots, so the choice for Pope remains a secret. In the other, a chemical concoction is burned, sending the correct color smoke out the chimney that the world watches.

“The result is requested by means of an electronic control panel and lasts for several minutes while the ballots are burning in the other stove,” said the Vatican Information Service.

Black smoke is made from potassium perchlorate, anthracene, and sulphur. The white smoke is a mixture of potassium chlorate, lactose, and rosin. The rosin is a natural amber resin obtained from conifers (pine).

Prior to 2005, the black smoke was obtained by using smoke black or pitch and the white smoke by using wet straw. Often the results were difficult to ascertain, or the smoke generated from the burning ballots would overwhelm the purposefully generated smoke.

“A lot of time smoke can give tell-tale signs of what’s burning,” said Deputy Chief Perry Ebner, the Minneapolis Fire Marshall. “If it’s very black, a lot of contents are burning.”

We see black smoke when there’s a lot of little carbon particles in the air. That happens when there’s “incomplete combustion,” Ebner said.

For example, WCCO burnt several magazines with heavy ink and pages squeezed tightly together.

“There’s not enough air circulating between the pages, and all the ink on the pages themselves, that’s what changes the color of smoke,” he explained.

The Vatican used to burn wet straw with the paper ballots to give the smoke a dark color, the idea was to keep the fuel from burning completely. That incomplete burning produced the carbon.

Now, the chemical is supposed to be fool-proof. But just in case, the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica ring as an official signal.

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