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What is the flame color of potassium chloride?

Potassium chloride, commonly known as KCl, is an ionic compound made up of potassium and chlorine. When heated in a flame test, potassium chloride emits a very characteristic color that can help identify it. In this article, we will explore the flame test, explain how it works, look at the chemistry behind potassium chloride’s vivid color, and outline the flame color produced by this important chemical compound.

The Flame Test

A flame test is a simple analytical procedure used to detect certain elements within a chemical sample. It takes advantage of the fact that heated elements emit light at signature wavelengths. By observing the color given off by a heated sample, the presence or absence of certain elements can be deduced.

To perform a flame test, a small amount of the compound being tested is held over a flame, usually using a wire loop or splint that has been dipped into a sample of the compound. The heat from the flame excites the electrons in the elements that make up the compound, causing them to emit visible light. Because each element emits light at characteristic wavelengths, the color observed reveals the presence of specific elements.

By using standards containing known elements and comparing their flame test colors, the composition of an unknown sample can be determined. This technique has applications in chemistry education to visually identify different elements and in analytical chemistry to detect the presence of certain metals in a sample.

The Chemistry Behind the Color

When potassium chloride is subjected to a flame test, a brilliant purple color is observed. This intense color results from the special properties of the potassium and chlorine atoms within the compound.

Potassium atoms contain 19 protons and electrons. One of the electrons orbits far from the nucleus in an energy level called the valence shell. This valence electron is relatively weakly bound and can be easily excited by heating. When exposed to flame, the valence electron gains energy and jumps to a higher energy level. When the electron falls back down, a photon is released in the visible spectrum, imparting color.

For potassium, the emitted photon has a wavelength of 404 nanometers, corresponding to a vivid purple color. This atomic emission spectrum is a unique fingerprint that identifies the presence of potassium.

Chlorine also plays a role during the flame test. As the negatively charged chloride ions are heated, they provide energy to the potassium atoms that promotes the excitation and photon emission process. This intensifies the brightness and saturation of the final flame color.

The Vivid Purple Flame

When sprayed into a flame, potassium chloride produces an intensely colored flame with a distinctive bright purple hue. This purple color has an unmistakable vividness that allows potassium’s presence to be instantly recognized.

The flame test is extremely sensitive to the potassium cation. As little as 100 parts per million of potassium ions in a sample can impart a discernible purple coloration to the flame. The vividness increases with greater potassium concentration, becoming an intense purple, often with a pink tinge at the lowerpart of the flame.

By comparing the hue and intensity of the purple to standardized potassium compounds, the potassium chloride concentration of unknown samples can be accurately gauged. The vividness of potassium chloride’s flame test provides an excellent analytical tool for identifying and quantifying this chemical.

Real-World Applications

The flame test is useful for detecting potassium in a variety of real-world applications:

  • Identifying potassium minerals – The purple flame color arising from potassium chloride can identify the presence of potassium salts like sylvite (KCl) and carnallite (KMgCl3·6H2O).
  • Firework colorants – Potassium compounds are used to produce purple colors in pyrotechnic mixtures. Flame tests help identify potassium chloride or potassium nitrate as purple-emitting ingredients.
  • Potassium in soils – Flame photometers allow precise potassium quantification in soil extracts by comparing flame emission intensities to standards.
  • Potassium in blood – Clinical flame photometers measure potassium levels in blood serum to monitor electrolyte balance.
  • Glass and ceramic analysis – Archaeologists use flame tests to detect potassium in ancient glass beads and glazes.

In each application, the vivid purple color arising from potassium chloride and related salts provides a signature identification of potassium’s presence.


When subjected to a flame test, potassium chloride emits a brilliantly vivid purple color. This results from excitation of potassium atoms to higher energy levels, followed by photon emission as electrons fall back down. The vivid purple flame provides a qualitative way to identify potassium salts and a quantitative analytical method when coupled with instrumentation.

The striking purple color arises from the unique atomic properties of the potassium and chlorine ions in potassium chloride. It has become a signature for potassium detection used in fireworks, forensics, agriculture, medicine, and more. So next time you see a vivid purple flame, it likely signals the presence of the ubiquitous and important chemical potassium chloride.