The Electric Life Saver Effect: Wintergreen-Candy Research Is Sparking New Interest in Triboluminescence

By Raloff, Janet | Science News, July 30, 1988 | Go to article overview

The Electric Life Saver Effect: Wintergreen-Candy Research Is Sparking New Interest in Triboluminescence


Raloff, Janet, Science News


THE ELECTRIC LIFE SAVER EFFECT

Kids have been familiar with this spark-in-the-dark magic for years. First you lure a friend inside a closet. Closing the door, you wait five minutes or so -- for the friend's eyes to adapt to the dark -- then pop a few Wint-O-Green Life Savers into your mouth and begin chomping away. If all goes well, the friend is treated to tiny bright flashes emanating from your mouth.

Children have referred to this display as the electric Life Saver effect. To physicists it's just one of the more prosaic examples of triboluminescence (SN: 6/6/87, p.360) -- light emitted by the friction between two materials. But to Linda M. Sweeting, it suggests a possible answer to some vexing questions about why certain crystals emit light as they're crushed. Her newest research, reported last month in Toronto at the Third Chemical Congress of North America, not only explains the candy spectable but also indicates a possible general mechanism behind triboluminescene--a phenomenon first reported by Francis Bacon some 400 years ago.

It's long been known that sugar crystals emit light when crushed. In fact, spectra collected during the 1920s identified the source of sugar's light as miniature discharges of static electricity -- essentially microlightning. The triboluminescence of wintergreen candy has also been known for a long time, althoug various problems have limited its spectral characterization. Sweeting, a physical organic chemist at Towson (Md.) State University decided to learn once and for all just what causes Wint-O-Green Life Savers and pink (wintergreen) Necco Wafers to flash when crushed.

For her experiments, she teamed up with Reginald F. Pippin III, a Towson undergraduate, and Patrick F. Moy, a chemist at EG&G PAR in Princeton, N.J. They began by crushing the commercial wintergreen candies with a glass rod in a Pyrex test tube. But "we had difficulties," Sweeting recalls, because a binder in the candy made it stick to the sides of the test tube. This scattered the candy's emissions, dramatically limiting how much light could reach the detector.

So Sweeting concocted imitation candies by mixing wintergreen flavoring with sugar. This time, when she smashed her candy with a glass rod, its intense spectra were readily detected by an array of more than 1,000 photocells. These emissions were then analyzed by a spectrometer.

Her data show the photoluminescent wintergreen absorbs the "lighting," emitted when the sugar is crushed, and then reemits it. And the greater the proportion of wintergreen in Sweeting's sweets, the greater the visible light show.

The lightning is produced when an asymmetric crystal -- such as sugar -- is cracked. …

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