We were looking at a candle that we have in our kitchen. And we we were confused as to why when you burn it, the wax seems to get less and less. If the wax is just melting, where does it go? Why does it not all just melt when you burn it and harden back up again when it isn’t burning? — MD, Charlottesville, VA
As the candle burns, its wax melts into a liquid, that liquid “wicks” up the wick (like water flowing up into a paper towel), and then the extreme heat of the flame vaporizes the wax (it is become gaseous wax). Once the wax is a gas, it burns in much the same way that natural gas burns — it reacts with oxygen in the air to become water and carbon dioxide. That reaction released chemical potential energy as thermal energy.
One important difference between a candle flame and a natural gas flame: whereas the flame of a well-adjusted natural gas burner emits very little light (a dim blue glow), the flame of a candle is quite visible. That’s because the wax vapor in a candle flame isn’t mixed well with air before it begins to burn. Instead of burning quickly and completely, as natural gas does in a burner that premixes the gas with air, the wax vapor in a candle flame burns gradually as it continues to mix with air. The partially burned wax forms tiny carbon particles. Those carbon particles are so hot that they glow yellow-hot — they emit thermal radiation. In other words, they are “incandescent”. It’s those glowing carbon particles that produce the candle’s yellowish light. Eventually the carbon particles burn away to carbon dioxide.