5D30.30 Glowing Pickle


Atomic excitation and emission


The variac is connected to the pickle and a large voltage is applied. The pickle begins to sizzle and steam. After a short time, the pickle glows. Note: the light from the pickle can be seen in large lecture halls but not the details of the setup; a video camera is often used in large lecture halls.



  • [1] Pickle
  • [1] Plate
  • [2] Forks
  • [1] Power cord
  • [2] Alligator clip
  • [1] Variac
  • (Optional) Handheld spectroscopes

Classroom Assembly

  1. Place a pickle on the plate.
  2. Insert a fork into each end of the pickle.
  3. Attach the alligator clips to each fork.
  4. Plug the power cord with alligator clips into the variac.

Important Notes

  • The voltage used in this demonstration is potentially lethal! Do not touch the pickle when it it connected to the variac! Perform this demonstration with extreme caution!
  • The pickle glows at one electrode only.
  • This demonstration smells strongly. Do not allow the pickle to glow for a long period of time in a small lecture room.


  1. Plug in the variac.
  2. Turn on the variac.
  3. Increase the variac voltage to about 120 V.
  4. Hold your microphone near the pickle (taking extreme care not to touch it!) to demonstrate that the pickle is sizzling.
  5. Wait for the pickle to glow. Let it glow for a few moments before turning off the variac.
  6. (Optional) The sodium D line can be seen fairly clearly using a handheld spectroscope. Spectroscopes can be distributed in a small class.


Additional Resources


  • PIRA 5D30.30 (also 5E30.30 and 5F15.20)
  • Video Encyclopedia 18-15
  • J.R. Appling, F.J. Yonke, R.A. Edgington and S. Jacobs, "Sodium D Line Emission from Pickles", J. Chem. Ed., 70 (3), 250, (March 1993) - shows a comparison of the spectrum from a pickle with the sodium spectrum, no lines other than the D lines were observed.
  • P.M. Weimer and R. Battino,"The Incredible "Glowing" Pickle and Onion and Potato and...", J. Chem. Ed., 73 (5), 456-457, (May 1996) - i) made a hole slightly larger than the electrode at one end, this end invariably glowed; ii) suggests cutting pickle in half and looking at discharges in gaps around seeds; iii) other veggies marinated in a 15% brine solution.
  • P. Scharlin, A.A. Cleveland, R. Battino, and M.E. Thomas, "Glowing Veggies", J. Chem. Ed., 73 (5), 457-459, (May 1996)
  • Penn and Teller mention "The Incredibly Dangerous Glowing Pickle Machine" in "How to Play With Your Food", Villard Books, New York, 1992:


  • Don't attempt this at home!

Last revised

  • 2018


  • The plug with alligator clips was made from a standard 2' long power cord
  • Each lead of the cord was soldered to an alligator clip

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If you have any questions about the demos or notes you would like to add to this page, contact Ricky Chu at ricky_chu AT sfu DOT ca.