FIRE By David R Graham

David’s response to the trigger from the elements

FIRE By David R Graham

‘A match is lit by striking it against the side of a matchbox. The reddish material coating the side of the box is made of red phosphorus, a stable form of the highly volatile white phosphorus, made infamous during the Vietnam war. It is mixed with abrasives such as tiny fragments of glass to create heat through friction.

When you strike a match the red phosphorus is converted to white phosphorus for a fraction of a second, just enough to cause a spark of heat by reacting with oxygen in the surrounding air.

This heat then ignites the first chemical on our journey – potassium chlorate. This is an oxidising agent, fuelling the spark into flame using oxygen stored in its molecular structure.

While this produces the distinctive flame when a match is struck, it will quickly burn out if it can’t ignite the next step in the reaction. Antimony trisulfide – the same stuff that gives gold-coloured fireworks their colour – is ignited by the potassium chlorate and continues to burn steadily. The antimony is responsible for keeping the match head lit long enough for the underlying wood to catch fire.

The distinctive smell of a safety match is also thanks to the antimony, which when oxidised, forms sulphur oxides. The match is now lit and ready to go to work. Paraffin wax coating the match ensures that the flame travels down the match in a controlled fashion.’

Katelyn watch in awe. Like the rest of her classmates gathered round Mr Ellis’s workbench, she barely understood a word he had said. But she was fascinated by the fire he had produced at the tip of the long stick when he had scraped it down the side of the big yellow box, and she was mesmerised by the colours that danced and flicker round the black head of the match he held up between the finger and thumb of his right hand. It was the first time she had seen a naked flame. The sight of it sent a flush of excitement coursing through her young body that left her almost gasping for breath. She had never seen anything so perfectly beautiful. 

When the class was dismissed, and Mr. Ellis was cleaning the whiteboard, Katelyn moved round the workbench, opened the drawer, took out the big matchbox, closed the drawer, and walked slowly out of the room.