Science Experiments

Flame Tornado - A Spinning Column of Fire

Sun, 14th Mar 2010

What you Need

This is one of the most beautiful science demos out there and always makes a big impression.

If you light a fire in the centre of a turntable, and spin the turntable nothing happens, but if you spin a mesh cylinder around the fire, something rather wonderful happens.

Fire Tonado

What is going on?

 The fire heats up the air around it, which expands becoming less dense and floats upwards, which is why flames move upwards. As the hot air floats upwards cold air moves in from the sides. If you add a mesh around the fire and spin it, then the air coming in is forced to spin slowly.


Spinning the mesh

Hot air rises up above the fire drawing in cold air at the sides

If the air has to move in through a spinning mesh then it starts to rotate

As the air moves closer to the centre it spins faster and faster causing the flame to spin in a rather beautiful way.

Flame tornado

As the air moves in it spins faster and faster

Why does the air spin faster?

 It is the same effect as an ice skater doing very fast spins. They start off with their weight spread out as far as possible, and cause them to spin slowly. Although they are rotating slowly the skater's extremities are actually moving quite fast. When the skater moves all their weight into the centre it has less distance to travel, so it takes less time for it to rotate. Also all the effort they put it overcoming centrifugal force actually speeds them up.

Skater slow

Skater spinning fast

When a skater starts to spin they spread their weight out

They then move their weight into the centre and speed up

Why does the flame get higher?

As the air starts to spin there are two effects which cause the flame to grow. 

The air is moving faster over the fuel so more of it evaporates, so there is more fuel in the flame, however this isn't the whole story as if you blow on the fire the flames get a bit longer but not 4-5 times longer.

But when the air is spinning it is very hard for it to move inwards because centrifugal force is effectively throwing the air outwards all the time. This slows down the rate at which air and therefore oxygen can get to the fuel, so slows down the rate the fuel can burn. This means it will take longer to burn, so it rises higher before it finishes burning. The lack of oxygen is also means that the fuel doesn't completesly burn so it produces lots of black smoke

Centrifugal force on flame

Centrifugal force means that it is hard for air and the fuel to mix, slowing the rate of burning

What has the experiment got to do with hurricanes?

 Hurricanes work on a very similar principle, an area of the sea is heated by the sun, this heats the air above it causing it to expand and float upwards (you also get lots of water evaporating to form water vapor which also floats in air). This draws air in from the sides, and if the upwelling is large enough it draws in air from thousands of km away. Because the earth is spinning this air is also spinning so as it moves inwards it spins faster and faster until the winds can get up to over 200km/hr and you have an immensely destructive hurricane.

Convection in hurricane

Hurricane Rotation

An area of hot sea causes air to heat up and float upwards drawing air in from thousands of km away.

This air is spinning because the earth is spinning so as it moves inwards it spins faster and faster forming a hurricane.

What to do

What may happen

Why does it happen?

Dave Ansell

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Fascinating experiment!

It must take lots of work to create these very informative articles, so please tell us what software you use to create the graphics... johnmuir, Thu, 15th Apr 2010

I draw them in Inkscape
I don't know if it is the best tool for the job, but I run linux and it is free. daveshorts, Thu, 15th Apr 2010

Many thanks and I run Linux as well - doesn't everyone? johnmuir, Fri, 16th Apr 2010

What is the fuel source for your flame? Due, Sat, 15th May 2010

Centrifugal force? Really? If you're actually going to explain things, don't throw false notions into the mix. Inertia exists, centrifugal forces do not. They are only a manifestation of inertia in the local reference frame, as such claiming that "they" are doing this or that is highly misleading. Nothing is acting on the mass to throw it out or its orbit. Rodj, Sat, 19th Jun 2010

The flame is fueled using fire/BBQ lighting gel, but any hydrocarbon based fuel that burns with a yellow flame will work well daveshorts, Fri, 30th Jul 2010

It doesn't exist in a stationary reference frame, but that doesn't mean that it isn't a useful concept. Centrifugal force is perfectly reasonable to use if you are in a rotating reference frame. It is also a useful intuitive shorthand for 'the air is moving rapidly so in order to make it go around a corner you have to apply a large pressure difference' and so I think educationally useful. daveshorts, Fri, 30th Jul 2010

im doing a fire tornADO FOR MY SCIENCE PROJECT BUT I NEED TO KNOW WHAT SIZE TURNTABLE TO USE.... rara, Fri, 5th Nov 2010

What kind of mesh cylinder are you using? Dan, Sun, 5th Dec 2010

I believe you meant to say centripetal force as opposed to centrifugal force. Harsh Singh, Tue, 22nd Feb 2011

It is not the centrifugal force, it is the centripetal force. The only force acting on an air molecule is the normal force exerted by the mesh, and other air molecules pushing it. This net force causes a centripetal force. Centripetal force is not a force itself, it is just a name how the net force seems to act in this certain condition Berr, Mon, 25th Apr 2011

What will change if the diameter of the mesh will be bigger? Will the flame still grew high but thicker? Gest, Wed, 8th Jun 2016

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