Flash Points, Autoignition and Fahrenheit 451

woman holding book on fire ftloscience

‘That ethanol you spilled has a flash point of 14 °C, your clumsiness is going to set the room on fire!’ A highly unlikely scenario actually. We often mistake flash points of substances for the temperature at which they will catch fire. For ethanol, this would require its surroundings to be a toasty 365 °C, which is its autoignition temperature. So, what’s the big fuss about its flammability? And is Fahrenheit 451 really the temperature at which paper spontaneously combusts?

Defining Flammability

A substance is defined as ‘flammable’ if it is easily set on fire. Fortunately for us and our readers, we can – and will – do a better job of assessing what flammability is in this article.

Just like most chemical reactions, combustion is an energetically favorable process in that the products contain less energy than the reactants. However this requires overcoming an activation barrier before doing so – yes, entropy is crazy and wants to turn everything to dust.

The activation barrier that a substance has to overcome in order to combust is known as its minimum ignition energy (MIE). The MIE is obtained by an ‘ignition source’, such as the spark of the fuel in a car’s engine, or the match held to a bunsen burner that triggers a roaring flame.

The buildup of static charge without dissipation may cause a discharge, which might deliver more energy than a substance’s MIE, causing it to ignite. A person walking on a carpeted floor may build up enough static energy to deliver a static discharge of 40 mJ (milliJoules), more than enough to overcome the MIE of many fuels in air (0 – 0.1 mJ)1. Hence, grounding pipes and storage units around flammable substances is important. Grounding provides a conductive surface through which static charges can dissipate.

box of explosives TNT dynamite
Despite its use as a? ‘high explosive’ 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene (TNT) has a MIE of 75 mJ, making it very difficult to combust without a proper ignition source.


Flash Point Vs. Autoignition – What’s the Difference?

Flammable substances are taken so seriously by regulatory agencies because even a small ignition source – but containing sufficient energy – can set off a cycle, in which the heat released from the initial combustion is enough to sustain the reaction. The temperature at which this reaction can be sustained is – you guessed it – the flash point!

This is why ‘flammable’ chemicals (with flash points close to or below room temperature) must be kept away from ignition sources – because once their MIE is reached, there’s no going back.

Autoignition is the temperature at which the environment provides the MIE, causing the substance to undergo combustion without the need for a specific ignition source. This temperature is usually much higher than its flash point. For example, the flash point of diethyl ether is -45°C but requires 180°C for autoignition2.

methyl-THF solvent hazard card
Methy-THF has a flash point of -11°C but an autoignition temperature of 270°C, way above its boiling point of 79°C3.

Something Amiss in Fahrenheit 451

What has all this got to do with the Ray Bradbury classic we all know and love? Well, the novel’s tagline reads: ‘Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns…’ With no mention of an ignition source, we can take some liberties and assume it’s the autoignition temperature that Bradbury is talking about here.

In the book, ‘firemen’ destroy books armed with flamethrowers that – being government supplied – we can assume to be military grade, with napalm as the fuel source. There are different variations of napalm, from the early ones made from long chain fatty acids that burned at around 1000°C (1832°F) to later concoctions of polystyrene and gasoline that could fire up to 2000°C (2632°F)4.

napalm dropped on ecuador
Napalm gets its name from its original composition: aluminium salts of naphthenic and palmitic acids.

Does anyone notice something funny here? If book paper catches fire when exposed to temperatures of 451 degrees Fahrenheit (233°C), isn’t it overkill for the firemen to wield flamethrowers capable of producing heat exceeding 1000°C? Surely they could’ve made do with heat guns, or simply by tossing the books into a nice warm baking oven.

Another discrepancy! It turns out that ordinary paper has an autoignition temperature of around 842°F/450°C, and won’t undergo combustion at 451°F/233°C5. Okay, but hang on a second, maybe Bradbury was referring to its flash point instead. But depending on its exact composition, paper has a flash point estimated to be around 662°F/350°C, still off by a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, Ray.

So if neither the flash point nor autoignition temperature of paper is what Ray references in his novel, where then did the number 451 come from? A possible theory is that Ray Bradbury might have had a little mix-up regarding units, as the autoignition temperature in the region of 450 degrees Celsius could have influenced his decision for the use of 451 in the title. Guess this is what happens when we have two different scales that measure temperature.

Fahrenheit and Celsius

As a little aside, the Fahrenheit scale was invented by Dutch-German-Polish physicist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit in 1724. He first defined it using a solution of ammonium chloride in ice (0°F or 17.8°C) and the average human body temperature (96°F or 36°C), as the lower and upper limits, respectively.

The Celsius scale was invented by Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius in 1742 using the boiling and freezing point of water for reference instead. It’s worth noting that the Celsius scale was flipped around a few times over the years because nobody could decide whether 0 should be the freezing or boiling point – bizarre!

Of course, nowadays both systems use absolute zero (-459.67°F/-273.15°C) and the triple point of water (32.01°F/0.01°C) as reference points for the sake of accuracy.

Hope you’ve learned something new! The next time you’re accused of being someone who just wants to watch the world burn, you can tell them it’s what the world wants. It’s just entropy, friend. Then proceed to convince them that everyone would be much better off if we could just agree on using the Kelvin scale.



Reference

  1. Babrauskas, V. (2003). Ignition handbook (Vol. 318). Fire science publishers: Issaquah, WA.
  2. “Ethyl Ether MSDS”. J.T. Baker. Retrieved?2010-06-24.
  3. Prat, D., Pardigon, O., Flemming, H. W., Letestu, S., Ducandas, V., Isnard, P., … & Hosek, P. (2013). Sanofi’s solvent selection guide: a step toward more sustainable processes. Organic Process Research & Development,17(12), 1517-1525.
  4. Neer, R. M. (2013). Napalm. Harvard University Press.
  5. Mark, R. E., Borch, J., Habeger, C., & Lyne, M. B. (Eds.). (2002). Handbook of physical testing of paper (Vol. 1). Crc Press.

4 Responses

  1. Sean says:

    Platinum is known to catalyze many reactions, including combustion (it is used in car engines for complete combustion of hydrocarbons). It is likely that having it in fine powder further enhances its catalytic properties, though I’m unsure as to how this would work on combustion (perhaps in the same mold as a dust explosion?). Catalysis in general is a fascinating yet poorly understood phenomenon. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Guy Montag says:

    “…we often mistake flash points of substances as the temperature at which they will catch fire. For ethanol this would require its surroundings to be a toasty 365°C, so what’s the big fuss about its flammability?”

    I worked for years as a semiconductor-process engineer. In the metallization lab of one of my former employers, we switched to using platinum as Metal 1 for a special application. After several runs in the vacuum chamber, one of the techs cleaned out the chamber, using paper swabs soaked with isopropyl alcohol to wipe down the chamber walls and collect the flaking platinum. After she threw the dirty swabs in a trash can, we quickly discovered that the swabs had started burning!

    I performed a controlled experiment in a petri dish on a stainless-steel countertop with an alcohol-soaked swab and some platinum powder taken from inside the chamber. Sure enough, in less than one minute the swab burst into visible yellow flames.

    This happened in a cleanroom held at a chilly ~ 68 °F…

  3. Thomas Morrow says:

    I read the novel in high school (before the movie came out), and I believed that burning kerosene provided 451°F of heat. Now that I am older and wiser (?), I looked it up. Burning kerosene gives off 1814°F. So I was wrong all these years. Who’d-a thunk it?

  4. Tom Hultgren says:

    I can’t site the source, but I read an interview with Ray Bradbury, a long time ago, where he said he just liked the sound of 451. In other words, he just made it up.

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