Few would think there is a direct link between the election of a new pope and the world of chemistry, yet not only did the newly-elected Pope Francis study chemical engineering before turning to the Church, but the smoke that signals the decision is controlled by some interesting chemistry.
The decision making process and voting for a new Pope is done in utmost secrecy in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Italy. The only clue about what is happening is the smoke that emerges twice a day from the burning of the ballot papers in a stove. Black smoke signals that no decision has been reached. White smoke means a new pope has been chosen.
Damp straw used to be added to the stove to turn the smoke black, but this didn’t always give a clear signal. To avoid confusion colored smoke is now added to the smoke from the ballot papers by a flare-like device in the chimney of the stove. The black smoke is produced by a mixture of potassium perchlorate, anthracene, and sulfur. The white smoke is a mixture of potassium chlorate, lactose and a chloroform resin, also known as Greek pitch.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1936. After training as a chemical engineer at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he opted for the priesthood as a career. In 1963, he has obtained a degree in philosophy at the Colegio Máximo San José in San Miguel, Buenos Aires, and was ordained for the Jesuits in 1969 during his theological studies at the Theological Faculty of San Miguel. He was novice master in San Miguel, where he also taught theology. He was Provincial for Argentina (1973–1979) and rector of the Philosophical and Theological Faculty of San Miguel (1980–1986). After completing his doctoral dissertation in Germany, he served as a confessor and spiritual director in Córdoba, Argentina. In 1992 he was appointed titular Bishop of Auca and Auxiliary of Buenos Aires and in 2001 he was created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II with the title of cardinal-priest of San Roberto Bellarmino.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio assumed the position of 266th Pope on March 13, 2013, taking the name Pope Francis.