Magnesium is element number twelve on the periodic table. It’s the lightest element that has practical uses as a metal and is often alloyed with other metals. Being strong but lightweight, magnesium has found applications in construction, aircraft, electronics, and much more. Magnesium is also essential to life, playing a role in plant photosynthesis and within our own bodies. Fortunately, there’s quite a lot of the stuff out there: by weight, about an eighth of the entire planet is magnesium!
But what magnesium is most famous for, and this is something you surely saw in chemistry class, is the way it burns like crazy, producing tremendous heat and an eerie and incredibly bright white light. This makes it a key ingredient in fireworks. If you remember flash bulbs, flash cubes, and flash sticks from the photography of yesteryear, those all used magnesium to produce the flash. So if you need to start a fire in a hurry, a little bit of magnesium is just the thing. But once you get magnesium burning, it isn’t easy to stop.
This is where the “Backyard Scientist” enters our story. We’ve posted one of his videos below. In it, he takes hunks of magnesium and ignites them with a blow torch and then tries to put the fire out by various means. Need we even advise you not to try this at home? As you’ll see, dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) doesn’t work at all. The magnesium fire is so energetic that it rips the oxygen from the carbon dioxide molecules. Spraying water on a magnesium fire, it turns out, is dramatically counterproductive.
The best way to put out a magnesium fire is not to start one in the first place. Failing that, smothering it with sand is probably your best bet.
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