Methanol Fires are Invisible

November 5th, 2010

When browsing through some videos online, I recently discovered that methanol fires are invisible.  That is to say, the flames are colorless and the combustion does not produce smoke.   Considering the prevalence of methanol as a solvent in the world of chemistry, you’d think this tidbit of information would have come up in safety training somewhere along the line.  Alas, no.

Open wheel motorsports have used neat methanol as a fuel for several decades, which means there’s plenty of video for us to observe methanol fires in action:

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While I find the idea of an invisible fire to be a safety liability, it is interesting to note that the Indy car circuit switched to neat methanol because it burns smokelessly.  A wreck in the 1964 Indianapolis 500 was exacerbated by poor visibility from the thick black smoke produced during a gasoline fire.  Two drivers died in the crash:

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You’d think that these racing leagues would have spiked the fuel with something that gives you an emission in the visible spectrum upon thermal excitation.  Alternatively, what about coating the car and the fire suits with a bit of sodium salt for the same effect?  I suppose it’s a moot point; Indy racing recently switched to ethanol as its fuel.  Ethanol fires are also smokeless, but burn with a light red flame.  Here’s an interesting demonstration of the combustion of various auto fuels:

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(That last video is probably a little misleading.  You can’t really simulate how these fuels burn in an engine the way the guy is burning them here.  I would expect all of the fuels to burn more cleanly at higher temperatures and with more oxygen.)


12 Responses to “Methanol Fires are Invisible”

  1. David P Says:

    That is why running hydrogenations in methanol is a bad idea. One reason anyway.

  2. Stewie Griffin Says:

    Very interesting. I had no idea.
    Well now I more fully understand the Talladega Nights seen where Will Ferrell is running around yelling “I’m on fire, put out the invisible fire.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxDqRy9bhtc)

  3. Matt Says:

    @Stewie … you beat me to it! “Save me Jesus! Save me Jewish god! Save me Allah! Save me Tom Cruise! Use your magic and witchcraft to put out the fire!”

  4. Stewie Griffin Says:

    *scene, not “seen”…. I guess it was too early for me :(

  5. Friday round-up | The Safety Zone Says:

    […] the blogosphere: Chembark on invisible methanol fires, risk assessment of dihydrogen monoxide at Chemist […]

  6. Wavefunction Says:

    If there’s salicylic acid around, an esterification reaction would also produce the distinctive smell of methyl salicylate. The reaction could be too slow however.

  7. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    I had a coworker badly burn herself on a Pd/C catalyzed hydrogenation run in MeOH. The solvent caught fire during the filtration and she stuck her hand right in the flame as she grabbed the burning frit. Ouch!

  8. wolfie Says:

    Could great men thunder
    As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
    For every pelting, petty officer
    Would use his heaven for thunder;
    Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
    Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
    Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
    Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
    Drest in a little brief authority,
    Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
    His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
    Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
    As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
    Would all themselves laugh mortal.

  9. k Says:

    My grandfather used methanol for this very reason when doing special effects for black and white movies.

  10. john Says:

    Um, so you didn’t pay attention in yr7 science? And that lead you to discover what is common knowledge.
    Cudos to you – and you help highlight the ignorance of established knowledge! No wonder so many of us from the western world are dumb-fucks!

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