Combustion and Explosions
As with any type of chemical reaction, combustion takes place when chemical bonds are brokenand new bonds are formed. It so happens that combustion is a particularly dramatic type of oxidation-reduction reaction: whereas we cannot watch ironrust, combustion is a noticeableevent. Even more dramatic is combustion that takes place at a rate so rapid that it results in anexplosion.Coal is almost pure carbon, and its combustion in air is a textbook example of oxidation-reduction. Although there is far more nitrogen than oxygen in air (which is a mixture rather thana compound), nitrogen is very unreactive at low temperatures. For this reason, it can be used toclean empty fuel tanks, a situation in which the presence of pure oxygen is extremely dangerous.In any case, when a substance burns, it is reacting with the oxygen in air.As one might expect from what has already been said about oxidation-reduction, the oxygen isreduced while the carbon is oxidized. In terms of oxidation numbers, the oxidation number of carbon jumps from 0 to 4, while that of oxygen is reduced to í2. As they burn, these two formcarbondioxideor CO
, in which the two í2 charges of the oxygen atoms cancel out the +4charge of the carbon atom to yield a compound that is electrically neutral.
Combustion in Human Experience
Combustion has been a significant part of human life ever since our prehistoric ancestors learnedhow toharnessthe power of fire to cook food and light their caves. We tend to think of premodern times²to use the memorable title of a book by American historian WilliamManchester, about the Middle Ages²as
A World Lit Only By Fire.
In fact, our modern age iseven more combustion-driven than that of our forebears.For centuries, burning animal fat²in torches, lamps, and eventually in candles²provided lightfor humans. Wood fires suppliedwarmth, as well as a means to cook meals. These were the mainuses of combustion, aside from the occasional use of fire in warfare or for other purposes(including thatghastlymedieval form of execution, burning at the stake). One notable militaryapplication,incidentally, was "Greek fire," created by the Byzantines in the seventh century
A mixture of petroleum, potassium nitrate, and possibly quicklime, Greek fire could burn onwater, and was used in naval battles to destroy enemy ships.For the most part, however, the range of activities to which combustion could be applied wasfairly narrow until the development of the steam engine in the period from the late seventeenthcentury to the early nineteenth century. The steam engine applied the combustion of coal to the production of heat for boiling water, which in turn provided the power to run machinery. By the beginning of the twentieth century, combustion had found a new application in the internalcombustion engine, used to power automobiles.