In modern life we are surrounded with products and processes which have been developed and refined over many years. It’s not often we actually stop to consider the complexity of these seemingly simple things.
We take for granted how raw materials from the earth are harvested and transformed into the polished products we use.
Take a tea light for instance. A small, ‘simple’ item with a ‘simple’ use. They are readily available, cheap, and only consist of a few parts. It’s easy to imagine that a tea light is an ordinary, uncomplicated object made of wax, string and metal; these are familiar ingredients but how much do we really know about their journey from earth to tea light?
Most people assume that wax is wax, but it is actually made in a number of different ways. Beeswax for example is made naturally by honeybees as a byproduct of their honey. But the wax in tea lights comes from an entirely different process; fractional distillation. Paraffin wax as it’s known is created at oil refineries as part of the petroleum industry.
Oil occurs naturally beneath the earths surface over many years when a large amount of dead organisms are heated and pressurised. When we extract these fossil fuels in the form of crude oil we refine them with a process called fractional distillation. By heating the oil to specific temperatures its component parts can be separated and we end up with different chemical compounds, one of which is paraffin wax.
For use in tea lights the refined paraffin wax can either be compressed into shape in its solid form or melted and poured into moulds before setting.
The wick in a candle is most commonly made from braided cotton, the sort we use as string etc. These wicks undergo a number of processes from their beginnings as a cotton plant.
Cotton is a fluffy, fibrous material which grows around the seedpods of the gossypium plant as a protective case. The fibres, once harvested can be spun into yarn and used to make soft fabric.
In tea light production the spun cotton is braided into string and then dipped multiple times into hot wax in order to create the coating which allows it to burn slowly. Many candle wicks are also treated with materials to make them more fire-retardant and therefore burn for longer. One such material is borax, a mineral which can be found naturally in evaporated lakes or produced synthetically as a chemical compound of the element boron.
As the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust aluminium is a widely used material, but it’s not as simple as digging up chunks of it.
It is found naturally combined with other minerals, most commonly in an ore called bauxite. Bauxite is is refined to produce aluminium oxide or ‘alumina’ using the ‘Bayers process’. This involves heating, filtering and cooling or crystallising. The alumina is then used in the ‘Hall-Héroult process’ for smelting aluminium. The aluminium oxide is dissolved in molten synthetic cryolite and then transformed into solid aluminium through electrolysis.
Once the aluminium is isolated it can be rolled out into sheets and pressed into shape. Both the cup and wick-tab in a tea light are made from aluminium due to its flexible nature and availability.
In this video we can see the finely tuned process in which all the component parts are put together to create the tea light.
Conducting this research on the materials used in the humble tea light has really opened my eyes. I think we all tend to overlook the depth and intricacies of the processes which take place to create the materials around us. Certain things such as plastics for example are more obviously manufactured and detached from the raw earth, but it is important to remember that even items we consider to be more natural such as cotton and metal go through enormous procedures before arriving at the familiar and usable materials we think we know so well.
I will definitely be taking the things I’ve learnt from the tea light manufacturing process into my own work. I can see that it is important to appreciate the origins of everything we use and take for granted, this can inform our choices and hopefully lead us to think more about the environment. As the world becomes more concerned with the environment it’s important that products are advertised as sustainable, I think it would be a great thing to have this sort of breakdown available for customers to see and understand. In my own work I will aim to create this connection between the customer and where their product has come from.
Sherman, B. (2007/2011) Wax Formulas for Teal Light Candles. Available at: http://www.onestopcandle.com/candle/recipetealight.php (Accessed: 4/11/16).
Wikipedia (2016) Fractional Distillation. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fractional_distillation (Accessed: 4/11/16).
Wikipedia (2016) Paraffin Wax. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraffin_wax (Accessed: 4/11/16).
Wikipedia (2016) Cotton. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton (Accessed: 4/11/16).
Wikipedia (2016) Aluminium. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aluminium (Accessed: 4/11/16).
How It’s Made (2015) How it’s made tea lights. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGg5gdjrCeM (Accessed: 4/11/16).