Smouldering and self-sustaining reactions in solids: an experimental approach
Smouldering combustion governs the burning of many materials in the built and natural environments. Smouldering is flameless, heterogeneous combustion which occurs when oxygen reacts with the surface of a solid fuel. Understanding the conditions which will result in the ignition and smouldering of a porous fuel is important and the phenomena involved are complex and coupled, involving heat and mass transfer, and chemical kinetics. This thesis reports experimental studies of the ignition, spread, suppression and emissions from reactions in porous media. Similar experimental techniques are shown in this thesis to be applicable when studying a wide range of solids which undergo self-sustaining reactions. This thesis is presented in a manuscript style. Each chapter takes the form of an independent paper which has been prepared for journal publication and as such, each chapter can stand on its own as a piece of research. A final chapter summarizes the findings and conclusions and suggests further areas of research. Chapter 1 presents a study of self-sustaining decomposition of ammonium nitrate containing inorganic fertilizer. This is of importance to the shipping industry which transports these materials in large quantities. Upon exposure to a heat source, ammonium nitrate may undergo exothermic decomposition which can propagate through the material, posing safety and economic threats. This reaction does not involve oxygenbased chemistry, but has many similarities to the propagation of a smoulder front in a porous material. Small-scale experiments to investigate the self-sustaining decomposition (SSD) behaviour of NPK (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous) 16.16.16 fertilizer were undertaken. Experiments showed that this material will undergo self-sustaining decomposition and are used to formulate a reaction framework. Findings were applied to the events that occurred aboard the Ostedijk in 2007. Chapter 2 is a study of smoulder in polyurethane foam to study the relationship between sample size, critical heat flux and spread rate. Smouldering fires are the leading cause of residential fire deaths in developed countries and polyurethane foam is ubiquitous in the modern world. The critical heat flux for ignition was found to decrease with increasing sample size and the spread rate was found to be a function of the sample size, smoulder propagation depth and the applied heat flux. This is the first time that results on the effect of sample size on smouldering have been reported in the literature and these can be used to aid the extrapolation of small-scale flammability testing results to large scale scenarios. Chapter 3 presents an experimental investigation into the ignition of porous fuels by hot particles. This is related to the problem of spotting ember ignition in wildland fires which is a major, but poorly understood, spread mechanism. The process of spotting occurs in wildland fires when fire-lofted embers or hot particles land downwind, leading to ignition of new, discrete fires. The work studies the ignition of a fuel as a function of ember size and temperature. Metal particles are used as a proxy for burning embers and powdered cellulose to represent the forest fuel. Relationships between the size and temperature of the particle required for flaming and smouldering ignitions are found. These results are used to assess the ability of hot-spot ignition theory to determine the particle size–temperature relationship required for ignition of a cellulose fuel bed. Chapter 4 is an investigation into the suppression of smouldering coal. Subsurface coal fires are a significant global problem with fires in China alone estimated to consume up to 200 million tons of coal per year. As global demand for coal increases, accidental fires are a waste of a useful energy resource as well as a source of pollution and greenhouse gases. The results are the first attempt reported in the literature to study the suppression of these fires under controlled laboratory conditions. The ignition, spread and suppression of subsurface coal fires were studied using small-scale laboratory experiments. Time to ignition was seen to depend on particle size with small and large particles resulting in long times to ignition, while medium sized particles resulted in the shortest time to ignition. The maximum temperature, spread rate and mass lost were found to be independent of particle size above a critical particle size. The effectiveness of three systems for delivery of a suppression agent were assessed – direct injection, shower and spray. The effect of particle size on the water required for extinguishing using a spray was found to be weak. Chapter 5 presents an experimental investigation of the smouldering behaviour of peat. This is of particular interest in understanding the impact of smouldering fires on the earth system. The longer burn durations and different combustion dynamics of smouldering compared to flaming means that they have been shown to consume large amounts of biomass in, and contribute significantly to the emissions from, natural fires occurring in peatlands. The dynamics of smouldering peat in shallow, strong fronts was studied in the Fire Propagation Apparatus and a smoulder reaction framework with two burning regimes is presented. The first regime is peat smouldering and was found to be controlled by the applied heat flux and the second regime corresponded to char smouldering and was more sensitive to the flow of oxidizer. Chapter 6 complements Chapter 5 with an analysis of the CO and CO2 emissions for smouldering and flaming peat. This data can be used with large-scale measurement techniques to improve emission estimates. The emissions are found to be dependent of the burning regime and the type of combustion with flaming resulting in higher fluxes of CO2 and lower fluxes of CO compared to peat smouldering. Char smouldering resulted in the highest yields of CO and CO2. The large majority of emissions (85% of CO2 and 97% of CO) are released during the smoulder phase of the reaction. This highlights the differences in the chemical processes occurring under these two modes of combustion. Chapter 7 summarizes the research undertaken in this thesis and presents possible further work.
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