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Project Fireball

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April 16th, 2000

Fireballs are surprisingly difficult to make. This was my first attempt:

Attempted fireball exploding target.

There is about 1/2 gallon of gasoline behind Bugs Bunny.  The yellow box contained a copy of the Symantec C++ compiler (another story and unrelated to the fireball attempt).   The two half-gallon milk cartons contained the standard mix of explosives with aluminum foil, steel wool, and aluminum powder in them.  It was anticipated one or more of these metals would burn long and hot enough to ignite the atomized gasoline.  The 1 quart container had smokeless gun powder in it.

The result of the detonation is below: 

As a fireball, it was a complete failure.

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December 2001

Ry Jones and I tested a number of different substances to help with the ignition of the gasoline.  Basically we needed something would ignite during the detonation and continue burning long enough for the gasoline to mix with the air in the proper ratio such that the gasoline will ignite and propagate.  First we tried a Titanium "powder".  It is more like a collection of flakes of various sizes.  It varied roughly from -20 to 200 mesh.  We put about a tablespoon of it in on top of a pint (about 1 pound) of explosive and put a gallon of gasoline on top it.

For scale, note the 30 gallon barrel off to the right of the picture to the upper right of the 'M' in 'PM'.  


Click on the picture to view the video.

Next we tried some steel- wool instead of the titanium powder.  The video shows it was a waste of the gasoline and steel-wool.  

Next we tried small pieces of aluminum foil instead of the aluminum powder.

There was a flash from the aluminum foil.  But no fireball.  Click on the picture for the video.

The video using aluminum powder is not particularly  interesting either.

Thermite made a nice flash, but no fireball.  Click on the picture for the video.

Aluminum foil without the gasoline to try and duplicate the flash.  Click on the picture for the video.

Without gasoline or other additions to the explosives.  Click on the picture for the video.

Notice the explosive by itself sometime generates a small flash, but the addition of the aluminum foil it makes a fairly large flash.

Next we duplicate the success with the titanium powder.

Titanium powder seems to be a winner.  Click on the picture for the video.

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December 12, 2002

Ry and I again did some experiments.  We used two pounds of explosives and put the titanium powder in various locations with the gasoline behind the explosives.  Click on the pictures below for the video (you may need to install this codec). 

Titanium powder in the middle of the mix (WMV video here).

Titanium at the bottom as with all the rest.

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January 19th, 2003 

Wanting to get a high resolution picture of a fireball I took my daughter Kim and her cousin Lacey out for some tests.  Kim ran the rifle, the video camera was on a tripod, and I had the still camera.  Lacey provided the additional sound effects.

Click on the picture for the high resolution picture.  Click here for the video.

The picture above was taken in daylight with some cloud cover.  The light from the fire was so bright that it made the ground appear dark as the camera adjusted for the intensity.  This used four gallons of gasoline (one gallon behind, one on each side and one on top) and four pounds of explosives. The shooter, daughter Kim, was about 100 feet away and was accompanied by her cousin Lacey (HOLY SHIT!) in the "giggle fit" after the fireball goes up.

Just as the fireball disappears out of sight you will hear some "happy sounds" from some other shooters.  These guys came over as we were mixing up the next batch and said, "You're Joe, aren't you?".  <heavy sigh>  My reputation precedes me.

Here is what Kim and Lacey wrote about their experience.

A wild heat 
engulfs my body
then grips my heart

My body is warmed
all the way through
my fingers to my feet

I'm not scared
for there is no pain
Just an immense heat

Kim Huffman-Scott


"Safety’s off" Kim replied as she took aim and fired. "Baawoooo!" screamed the fire as both Joe and I were engulfed with the radiant illumination. It looked for just a moment as if the fiery gates of hell had suddenly opened for the world to see. In that split second it seemed to me that the earth had opened to reveal itself from within. From a hundred feet away my face and hands tingled as if I had walked into a warm room. I wanted to run in fear but I was mesmerized by the sight of such power and the only outlet of emotion that I was capable of was a few profanities. The ball of fire swelled high into the air where it turned into a puff of black smoke. A small fire continued to burn up though the rocks marking the initial spot of ignition. Kim proudly rose from the ground with a look of utter satisfaction. The three of us laughed with excitement as we decided to try it one more time. 

Lacey Swanson

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April 19, 2003

We tried using diesel instead of gasoline but it didn't ignite.  It has a lower ignition point but it doesn't vaporize nearly as easily.  Liquids don't burn, vapors do.  The second and third shots are using 'farm gas'.  No road tax is paid on it so I can get it cheaper.  I was concerned because we don't believe it has any ethanol in it but now we know it will work (at least some of the time) when the weather is warm.  The temperature for today's test was about 60 F, plus the gas was in plastic containers sitting in the sun for many hours.

Click on the image to see the video:

Ry and I had an audience of six people not including the neighbors across the road who later told me (with huge grins on their faces) they saw it too.  All seem pleased with the results.

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May 4, 2003

Boomershoot 2003.  The fireball demo.  Ignition has clearly started.  Click on the picture for the video.
If you have a high speed computer and fast download capabilities there is a high resolution version of the same video.
You may need to install a free codec to view it from this web site:
Video and image from Jason.

Boomershoot 2003.  The fireball demo.  The gas cloud is fully engulfed in flame.Click on the picture for the video.
If you have a high speed computer and fast download capabilities there is a high resolution version of the same video.
You may need to install a free codec to view it from this web site:
Video and image from Jason.

See also the video and other pictures from this event.

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We now have a recipe that almost always works.  Occasionally we have unexplained failures to ignite.  We are beginning to suspect that in cold weather we have better luck when we use gasoline that contains ethanol.  In addition to the cold weather characteristics of gasoline with ethanol, it will ignite when the fuel concentration in the air is between 3.3 and 19%.  Straight gasoline has a much narrower range of 1.2% to 7.6%.  There is also data to indicate that we just need to use more titanium powder.

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Email: Joe Huffman
Last updated: October 28, 2010