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E-mail Newsletter.

August 03, 2003
Making Sparks in the Dark
For decades, youthful suitors have smooth-talked their dates into turning out the lights to see if Wint-O-Green Lifesavers really spark when you bite them. Most of these romantic couples never got so far as to actually test the idea, since a different type of sparks went flying as soon as the lights went out! So is it true?

by Doug Gerlach

Let the sparks fly! You could always test this yourself in a dark room, either with a friend, or by yourself with a mirror. (Obviously, the first option might be a little more fun, depending on the friend -- as long as you don't let the fun get in the way of carrying out the experiment). You'll need a pack of Wint-O-Green Lifesavers, too.

Once inside your chosen dark place, give your eyes a few minutes to adjust to the light levels, and then pop a Lifesaver into your mouth. Bite down and chew (with your mouth open) and you will be able to see blueish sparks fly!

Don't worry, you won't get shocked. The scientific principle behind this phenomenon is called triboluminescence, the process of light created by friction. The term comes from the Greek "tribein," meaning "to rub," and the Latin prefix "lumin-," meaning "light." When you crush the sugar crystals in a Lifesaver, tiny electrical fields are created, separating positive and negative charges that then jump through your mouth in their urge to reunite -- creating sparks in the process.

WintOGreen Lifesavers aren't the only candy that exhibits qualities of triboluminescence. Regular sugar cubes will work, and also will just about any opaque candy made with sugar (transparent candy doesn't work, nor does any candy made with sacharin or aspartame). WintOGreen Lifesavers work especially well because wintergreen oil (methyl salicilate) is fluourescent and converts the invisible ultraviolet light into visible blue light.

One final tip -- the effect doesn't work once the candy gets too soggy, so you have to watch carefully as soon as you start chewing.

For more on triboluminescence and Wint-O-Green Lifesavers, check out the research of Dr. Linda M. Sweeting of the Department of Chemistry at Towson University.

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