Thursday, 11 November 2010

Triboluminescence of sugar

Hello again. I've been really lazy recently. Well, not really lazy - I've been busy doing other stuff for other people, so I've neglected the Secret Laboratory recently. I don't even have a project for this month yet. I'm going to have to come up with something...

Anyway, just to fill the gap, I thought I'd introduce you all to a really easy technique for observing the phenomenon known as triboluminescence. Yes, this is my own method, I didn't nick it from the Internet.

Triboluminescence is an optical phenomenon whereby light is generated when chemical bonds are broken. So how do we do that then? Here we go...

Go out and buy a packet of generic "Extra Strong Mints". You know the kind I mean. They're hard, white and about an inch in diameter. Make sure they're fresh and dry - this doesn't work with soggy old mints.

Bear with me here. Take your mints to bed. Make sure everything is really dark. Hide under the duvet to make sure it's really dark. I don't mean just fairly dim, I'm talking pitch black, the kind of dark I imagine must have existed before the Universe was born. The kind of dark that doesn't even have space attached to it.

Stay in the dark for five minutes or more, keeping your eyes open. Your eyes will struggle to accommodate the dark but they will fail because it's really dark, right? You now have super-sensitive eyes, ready to detect the merest stray photon.

Take a mint from the packet and hold it 'twixt both forefingers and thumbs. Stare wide-eyed at the point where you judge the mint to be (you can't actually see the mint because it's really dark, right?)

Keep your eyes on the judged location of the mint - this phenomenon is fleeting. Snap the mint in half smartly by rotating your hands outwards to bring the broken faces uppermost. In other words, you're snapping the mint towards you, not away from you.

Did you see the flash? What colour did you see?

That was triboluminescence of sugar, brought to you by The Secret Laboratory. You can eat the mint now. Sleep well.

Warning: Eating mints can cause tooth decay. Always brush your teeth before falling asleep after observing triboluminescence of sugar under a duvet at night.


  1. Can't sleep. Can't Snap the bloody thing!

  2. Did you discover this by accident Marcus? The mind boggles as to what you were up to under there!

  3. This dates back to the early 80s and a scientist friend of mine, Laurence Scales. We devised and tested a whole range of techniques for observing triboluminescence. The "Extra Strong Mint method" consistently returned the best results. It's not so difficult to go from "How do I break the bonds in sugar?" to "Hey, let's snap a hard sugar-based confection".