Flame on Water Feature

A Water Flame – How does it work?

The problem with being a scientist is that very little is taken on face value. We went on a family holiday to Norfolk this year and visited the lovely Houghton Hall. The Hall is home to a large collection of outdoor modern sculptures, the most famous of the artists being Henry Moore.

My personal favourite was a rather unusual piece of artwork by a Danish artist, Jeppe Hein. In the garden, there appears to be a shallow pool of water surrounded by grass. Suddenly a flame ignites in the centre of the pool. Then, as if by magic, a spout of water lifts the flame some two metres into the air. The flame burns for a few seconds, vanishes, and the water fountain sinks back into the pool.

My daughter and I stood and watched along with other visitors to the gardens. Indeed, it was quite a sight. Most people were admiring the apparent trick – how could a flame burn atop a fountain of water? As the spectators left to be replaced by a new set, my daughter and I continued to watch. There had to be a scientific explanation and we intended to find it. We stood for several minutes, fixated not only on the burning fountain, but also on the still pool.

The flame must be gas powered with an ignition system just above the surface of the pool. The gas, possibly methane or butane, must be lit by an automatic electrical spark. Once the gas is alight, the water jet pushes the burning gas upwards and the supply of gas continues, so that there is a stream of flammable bubbles in the jet of water. The water only reaches a certain height before falling back into the pool but the escaping gas is able to continue to provide the fuel needed for the combustion to provide the flame. The flame only burns for a limited time, then the water jet dies away, allowing for the re-ignition of the gas at the pool surface.

Satisfied that we had replaced the magic with hard scientific evidence, my daughter and I finally walked away.

I’m often asked what practical application does GCSE science have in everyday life. Science really is all around us, and all it takes is a little bit of patience and some thought, to see it for yourself.