Conclave smoke - sacred chemistry

Conclave smoke - a sacred chemistry

4:41 AM, 14th March 2013
Conclave smoke - a sacred chemistry
The white smoke indicates the election of a new pope.

VATICAN CITY, ITALY: The world waited with bated breath for the election of a new pope, with all eyes fixed on the tiny chimney perched on the roof of the Sistine Chapel for a sign of either black smoke or white smoke. The smoke spewed out in thick black billows, indicating a new pope has yet to be chosen. The conclave needs 77 votes, or a two-thirds majority from 115 cardinal-electors, for a single name to elect a new pope. The reappearing of the white smoke indicates a new pope.

What gives the conclave smoke, or the ‘fumata,’ its thick, distinctive colouring is a certain chemical mixture. According to the Vatican press office, the black smoke is produced by a mixture of potassium perchlorate, anthracene and sulphur. The white smoke is a mixture of potassium chlorate, lactose and a pine resin, also known as Greek pitch. When the cardinals’ ballots are cast and counted, the ballots are burned in a two-stove system.

The ballots and personal notes are burned in a cast-iron stove that is about 3-feet high and about 19 inches in diametre. It has been used since the conclave of 1939, which elected Pope Pius XII. When the ballots are burned in the older stove, it triggers an electronic, smoke-producing device outfitted on a second, more modern stove, which was first used in the 2005 conclave for the election of Benedict XVI.

The device releases a cartridge holding five ‘charges’ or containers of one of the two chemical mixtures. The five charges are loaded one at a time into the device to produce enough black or white smoke to remain visible for about seven minutes.

The exhaust pipes of the older, cast-iron stove and the modern stove are joined together as one singular pipe, which then leads to the Sistine Chapel’s chimney. So the smoke we see from St Peter’s Square is a mixture from the cardinals’ burning ballots and the chemicals.

© ABC News

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