We've all seen some the awesome fireworks that steel wool can produce, either in person or on video— and as simple as it is, we just can't get enough of it! It's really basic chemistry, but sometimes simplicity can amaze more than complexity. And in this video, our favorite web scientist, NurdRage, battles the burning flame of one of the world's most common household item, i.e. the Brillo Pad. Plus, there's an even bigger reaction towards the end with an added chemical compound).
This video demonstrates the simple combustive oxidization of iron. Steel wool doesn't look like it, but it's actually quite reactive with air. To see this, simply take some plain steel wool, separate the iron strands (fluff it up a bit) to give it more air between the voids, then just set it on fire. You can torch it by simply lighting it on fire OR you can try your hands at the 9-volt battery method. Whichever way you light it, you'll get a nice miniature light show of burning iron.
The flameless burning of steel wool is caused by the iron reacting to the air to form iron oxide. Normally, we don't think of iron as being flammable, and this is because bulk iron doesn't self-sustain its burning like most flammable materials. But the strands of steel wool are thin enough, with enough surface area, that heat produced is self-sustaining and will continue to burn through if there is enough air present. Compacted steel wool won't oxidize the iron.
Now, go a step further and use some potassium chlorate (see how to make it from bleach here). Mixing equal masses of iron to potassium chlorate will produce a very vigorous reaction, since the oxygen is provided directly in a more concentrated form.
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