Steel Wool Combustion!

Posted by: on Jul 17, 2013 | No Comments

In this experiment we will make fire from a battery and steel wool. We will demonstrate how to use electricity to make heat and sparks. Then harness the sparks to create a fire. The project is easy and definitely fun to see, and is best tried outside in a sheltered spot with adult supervision.


You will need:

Thin / Very Fine Steel Wool

9 volt battery

baking pan


With adult supervision, pull the steel wool pad apart until it’s the size of a tennis ball. Then stretch the pad into thin strips that all inter-connect. Place the steel wool in the baking pan. Turn off the lights. Touch the ends of the battery to the steel wool.


What’s Happening?

The threads in the steel wool are made of iron. These iron threads are surrounded by pockets of oxygen unlike a solid block of iron. That causes it to combust or burn very easily. The electrons from the battery move rapidly creating electricity which makes a complete circuit when it touches the steel wool. The electricity moves like a fluid and flows through the iron threads generating heat along the way. The heat creates sparks.


Safety Stuff

The fire triangle or combustion triangle is a simple model, from the practitioners of fire-fighting, for understanding the ingredients necessary for most fires. The triangle illustrates the rule that in order to ignite and burn, a fire requires three elements: heat, fuel, and an oxidizing agent (usually oxygen). The fire is prevented or extinguished by removing any one of them. A fire naturally occurs when the elements are combined in the right mixture. Without sufficient heat, a fire cannot begin, and it cannot continue. Heat can be removed by dousing with water; the water turns to steam and the steam is further heated, taking the heat with it. Introducing particles of powder or any gas in the flame removes heat in the same manner. Separating burning fuels from each other also reduces the heat. In forest fires, burning logs are separated and placed into safe areas where there is no other fuel. Scraping embers from a burning structure also removes the heat source. Turning off the electricity in an electrical fire removes the ignition source.


Further Information

These days the Boy Scout manual instructs Scouts to start a fire with a steel wool pads and a 9-volt battery rather than the traditional method of starting a fire with flint and steel. To accomplish this, they do not string the wool threads out as we did in the experiment above. But instead leave it in a ball. When the electricity flows through the ball, it will form a red hot amber in the middle. That amber can be transferred to a small pile of dry leaves, grass, and kindle to start the fire. After placing the amber on the dry kindle pile, you need to blow on it, thereby pumping in oxygen to get the material to ignite into a fire.


Have Fun!


Thanks to, and adapted from