According to my textbook, when a flame test of an iron salt is performed, it produces an orange, mostly yellow flame. Sodium salts also produce a yellow flame.

As the colours of these two flames are too similar, how do I differentiate an iron flame from a sodium flame?

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    $\begingroup$ You can watch for spectral lines of iron and sodium. Note that solid particles containing iron will likely produce rather continuous emission spectrum. $\endgroup$
    – Poutnik
    Sep 20 '20 at 10:31

Sodium flame is yellow, but all the light is due to two lines in the yellow region. If you look a sodium flame through a purple glass (cobalt glass), the yellow color is absorbed, and you do not see the sodium flame any more. The flame looks dark and colorless through a cobalt glass.

On the contrary iron flame looks yellow, but it is made of a huge number of lines belonging to all regions of the spectrum. The sum of these colors look yellow, but it's a visual effect. The flame contains all colors. If you look at such an iron flame through a cobalt glass, the flame is visible. It looks purple or violet, but it is visible.

  • $\begingroup$ A diffraction grating or a hand-held spectroscope (you can make one with a broken CD) can be an easier way to distinguish them based on the same principles. $\endgroup$
    – Davidmh
    Sep 22 '20 at 20:11

Very good question. I believe you are talking about ordinary Bunsen burner flame which is considered a low temperature flame by atomic standards. Good temperatures for atomic emissions are on the order of the temperature of the surface of the Sun (around 10,000 K).

So you are right, it is very "difficult" to visually distinguish the apparent flame color of the two elements. Also keep in mind, that there is no 100% pure iron salt. Sodium is everywhere!! So even iron flame is contaminated with sodium flame. The yellow color of sodium atoms comes from atomic emission at 589 nm.

The yellow color of iron flame comes from its oxide FeO which emits exactly at 579 nm. Our eyes are extremely sensitive to yellow light range, because is a very small range in the visible spectrum. There are no huge number of lines in the visible spectrum in such low temperature flame of Bunsen burner. Iron flame

Reference: Analytica Chimica Acta, 115 (1980) 121

A real emission spectrum of iron has literally thousands of lines but you need to create temperature close to the Sun's surface with a plasma or an electrical arc.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Surface of Sun: not quite 10,000 K, closer to 6000. $\endgroup$ Sep 21 '20 at 16:26

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