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Most of our readers will probably have at least passing familiarity with thermite, and many, if asked, would probably be able to identify the most common thermite reaction: a mixture of powdered aluminum and iron oxide which, properly ignited, produces extremely high temperatures and a stream of molten iron that can be used, for example, to weld steel.

In fact, this well-known process is only one of a very large number of possible reactions between metal powders and metal oxides, all of which are rightly called “thermite.” Because aluminum is cheap, readily available, and has a very high oxidation potential, it is commonly used as the reducing agent in these processes, and any thermite process using aluminum as the metal reactant can be described as an aluminothermic reaction.

UCLA physicist Jeffrey Schwartz, whose traditional thermite demonstrations I very much enjoyed at BAMF last week, has compiled what, he quite plausibly claims, is the world’s largest online gallery of thermite reaction videos at his fascinating site Amazing Rust.com. By my count, Jeffrey has there documented, with pictures or video or both, more than 40 different aluminothermic thermite events, smelting eleven different metal oxides including vanadium, cobalt, and titanium. [Thanks, Jeffrey!]

More:
How-To: Make Pyrophoric Iron

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I write for MAKE, serve as Technical Editor for MAKE magazine, and develop original DIY content for Make: Projects.


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Comments

  1. Seth Meyers says:

    I played with Thermite all through my mis-spent youth. I did a lot of bad bad things. As a responsible adult I just did a nice Thermite demonstration for my kid’s 13th bday party.  I ordered stuff from Alpha Chemicals (alphachemicals.com) — good selection, pretty good prices. We went through the chemistry on a white board, everyone weighed and mixed their own batches.  

    A couple of pointers: 

    - Be safe. Adequate distance, long piece of magnesium ribbon, safety glasses, and most importantly a long pokey pole for pushing apart mis-ignitions.

    - Ignition: I tend to prefer not to use commercial igniters — it’s sort of too “magical”.  I have never tried the glycerin / permanganate method but it looks interesting.  What I do is make a little well and fill it with a teaspoon of magnesium powder.  Then stuck a nice long piece of magnesium ribbon into the powder, and down into the thermite.  Light the ribbon with one of those wind-proof “torch” lighters.
     
    - Fe2O3 is plenty good enough.  The alternate reactions are cool to test out, but generally speaking not as good, or much too expensive. Definitely stay clear of the Cupric Oxide (CuO) unless you really know what you are doing — VERY fast reaction, more akin to an explosion. Quite a surprise, and potentially quite dangerous.  Seriously.

    - No need for the expensive, super-fine mesh aluminum.  The medium (100 micron?) is fine.

    - We laid out a nice surface of firebrick. Perfect for protecting whatever is under it.  Unfortunately we laid it out on a patio table that couldn’t hold the weight of all those bricks.  Collapse ensued. Lesson learned.

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