Chemicals used during Papal election to generate coloured smoke
Perhaps the most watched thing in the world since Tuesday is the simple two-metre-tall copper chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican — and not the magnificent Michelangelo-frescoed ceiling of the chapel.
It’s the white smoke that billows out of the chimney that announces to the world the election of the 266th successor to Saint Peter or the next Pope of the Catholic Church. Black smoke indicates that no pope has been elected by the College of Cardinals and that further votes will be held. The 115 cardinals will vote until a single candidate garners a two-thirds majority (77 votes), at which point the smoke coming from the Sistine Chapel chimney will be white. After that, the chimney is dismantled and largely forgotten till the next conclave.
The smoke emanates from the burning of the ballots where the cardinals will write out their picks for the next pope. Prior to 2005, the black colour was generated by burning pitch with the counted ballots and the white smoke by using wet straw. But beginning with the conclave of 2005, in order to provide a distinctive colour to the smoke, a secondary apparatus was introduced beside the traditional stove.
According to information provided by ZENIT, an Italian news agency covering events pertaining to the Catholic Church, the new device stands next to the ballot-burning stove and has a compartment where, according to the results of the vote, coloured smoke could be generated from chemical compounds whipped up by the Vatican’s own technicians.
For the black smoke, the chemical compound used is made of potassium perchlorate, anthracene, and sulphur and the white smoke is generated from a mixture of potassium chlorate, lactose, and rosin. The rosin is a natural amber resin obtained from conifers. ZENIT says that in order to improve the airflow, the pipe to the chimney is pre-heated by electrical resistance and it has a back-up fan. The smoke from the burned ballots from the first stove and the coloured smoke from the new device are funnelled up one pipe that leads to the chimney and the outside world. An electronic control panel allows the choice between the two, and the correct compound is burned at the same time as the used ballots.
The longest papal election was in 1268. It lasted over two years and resulted in the election of Pope Gregory X. In modern history, the longest conclave was that of 1740. It lasted 181 days. Fifty-one cardinals participated in the final ballot; four cardinals died during the election period, according to ZENIT.
The 1978 conclave that elected John Paul I was the first in which cardinals over the age of 80 did not participate. That conclave lasted two days and 111 cardinals participated. In the conclave held the same year, John Paul II was elected by the same 111 cardinal electors in three days.
The current conclave, which began on March 12, is the first one since 1829 to be held during Lent. As soon as a cardinal gets the required votes, the cardinal of highest precedence will ask him whether he accepts the election as supreme pontiff. Once his acceptance is given, the new pontiff will be asked to declare the name he wishes to be known as. The papal name most often chosen was John (23 times), followed by Gregory and Benedict (16 times each).