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Our chemistry club has, for the last few years, been showing off some reactions to prospective students. One of the most popular tricks we have is a bit of an explosive one: we mix some potassium permanganate with ethylene glycol in a small bottle. The permanganate oxidizes the glycol, and we usually end up with an intense, three foot flame that shoots out of the bottle, followed by some popping, and finally, the whole thing burning to the ground.

Usually.

Recently, we've been using the exact same mixtures with the same ratios and getting wildly differing results. This entire week, all we've gotten is the glycol bubbling a little and maybe spitting out some of the permanganate, and not much more. The ratios we use are almost the same, so I'm not sure what could be causing this.

Is this reaction sensitive to age of the reactants? Ambient temperature? Humidity? What could cause the reaction to not work normally?

P.S. In spite of the home-experiment tag, the chemicals used here are lab-grade (from Sigma-Aldrich), though I'd be interested in how the purity might affect the reaction as well.

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    $\begingroup$ What setting are you carrying out this reaction? In a hood? This sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. $\endgroup$ – jerepierre Oct 24 '14 at 0:02
  • $\begingroup$ @jerepierre These reactions are usually done over concrete outside of a building, with spectators kept at least 15 feet away. Also, we usually don't have any larger than a 20mL container, which limits how big we can make the boom. $\endgroup$ – chipbuster Oct 24 '14 at 7:13
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Capsules of potassium permanganate injected with ethylene glycol are used as aerial ignition devices in bush and forest firefighting. They are considered a reasonably safe option because of the delayed reponse prior to ignition. They are sometimes known as dragon eggs or fireballs. The rate of chemical reaction is very much dependent upon

  • the particle size of the potassium permanganate. Powdered permanganate (greater surface area) works much better than larger crystals.
  • the concentration of the ethylene glycol. Dilute glycol may not lead to ignition at all. Perhaps your glycol solution is very wet.
  • ambient temperature. Unless you are trying this in the middle of winter outside in the snow, this is unlikely to be the cause of disappointment.
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