Spontaneous Combustion

Spontaneous combustion, phenomenon in which a substance unexpectedly bursts into flame without apparent cause. In ordinary combustion, a substance is deliberately heated to its ignition point to make it burn. Many substances undergo a slow oxidation that, like the rapid oxidation of burning, releases heat. If the heat so released cannot escape the substance, the temperature of the substance rises until ignition takes place. Spontaneous combustion often occurs in piles of oily rags, green hay, leaves, or coal; it can constitute a serious fire hazard.

Cause and Ignition

  1. A substance with a relatively low ignition temperature (hay, straw, peat, etc.) begins to release heat. This may occur in several ways, usually oxidation by a little moisture and air, bacterial fermentation generates heat.
  2. The heat is unable to escape (hay, straw, peat, etc. are good thermal insulators), and the temperature of the material rises.
  3. The temperature of the material rises above its ignition point (even though much of the bacteria are destroyed by ignition temperatures).
  4. Combustion begins if sufficient oxidizer, such as oxygen, and fuel are present to maintain the reaction into thermal run-away.

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