How are luminol and fireflies related? — JH, Minneapolis, MN
There are a few molecules that can be chemically oxidized to produce new molecules that then spontaneously emit light. The chemical reactions that occur in these special molecules leave the resulting new molecules electronically excited—their electrons are in states that have more than the minimum allowed energies. As these energetic electrons subsequently shift to states with less energy, they release some of that energy as light.
In a firefly, the molecule that is being oxidized is called luciferin. It’s combined with oxygen and the important biological energy storage molecule ATP (adenosine triphosphate), assisted by a catalyst protein called luciferase. A series of reactions then occurs, culminating in the formation of excited decarboxyketoluciferin. This molecule emits a photon of green light and becomes normal decarboxyketoluciferin.
Luminol, a molecule used in many cold light products, is a somewhat simpler molecule that is much easier to synthesize commercially than is luciferin. When it’s oxidized with hydrogen peroxide and potassium ferrocyanide, it forms an excited molecule that emits a photon of blue light. This blue light is often shifted to green or orange with the help of a fluorescent dye. The dye absorbs the blue light and uses its energy to emit green or orange light. This material is commonly used in light sticks and glowing necklaces or toys.