The Naked Scientists

The Naked Scientists Forum

Author Topic: Why doesn't plastic burn?  (Read 30955 times)

paul.fr

  • Guest
Why doesn't plastic burn?
« on: 26/04/2007 05:20:30 »
If you set fire to paper, it burns to ash. Why when you set fire to a plastic bag, does it melt into a solid lump?


 

Offline DoctorBeaver

  • Naked Science Forum GOD!
  • *******
  • Posts: 12656
  • Thanked: 3 times
  • A stitch in time would have confused Einstein.
    • View Profile
Why doesn't plastic burn?
« Reply #1 on: 26/04/2007 08:23:21 »
I assume it's because paper burns & plastic just melts  :D
 

paul.fr

  • Guest
Why doesn't plastic burn?
« Reply #2 on: 26/04/2007 08:27:39 »
I assume it's because paper burns & plastic just melts  :D

Clever clogs! ;) Plastic sort of burns, ie there are flames. But why does it end up in a hard lump and not an ashy like substance.
 

Offline daveshorts

  • Moderator
  • Neilep Level Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 2583
  • Physics, Experiments
    • View Profile
    • http://www.chaosscience.org.uk
Why doesn't plastic burn?
« Reply #3 on: 26/04/2007 08:55:10 »
The reason that plastic ends up in a hard lump is that it is made up of long chain molecules - it is a polymer. In a film these are stretched out straight. When you heat them up they are buffeted around my the energetic molecules around them and they become wiggley. This makes the whole thing contract into a lump.

To burn with a flame something has to form into a gas. Polymer molecules are far too long to do this in one piece, so you need to get them hot enough to actually break up thermally.

Wood ash is made up of all the things that can't burn in wood - Salt, Potassium hydroxide, any other minerals in there. Polyethene is just a long chain of CH2CH2CH2CH2CH2CH2CH2 so there is nothing there that won't burn. So you are either going to have slightly damaged plastic or water and carbon dioxide, never ash.
 

another_someone

  • Guest
Why doesn't plastic burn?
« Reply #4 on: 26/04/2007 11:36:57 »
Have you ever tried to burn petrol and expect any ash afterwards?

Polythene (polyethylene) is just a super long petrol molecule.

Paper also begins to curl up before it catches fire (and it will not catch fire unless there is enough temperature and enough oxygen to burn it).

Now if you try and burn Bakelite (phenolic resins), that is a very different matter - they genuinely wont burn, which is why they are used in places where you want genuine fire resistance (like electric plugs, or saucepan handles).  The other plastics that wont burn are silicone based plastics.
 

Offline lightarrow

  • Neilep Level Member
  • ******
  • Posts: 4586
  • Thanked: 7 times
    • View Profile
Why doesn't plastic burn?
« Reply #5 on: 26/04/2007 13:33:38 »
If you set fire to paper, it burns to ash. Why when you set fire to a plastic bag, does it melt into a solid lump?

It melts and then burn, if you keep heating it with a flame. If a combustible material undergoes a phase transition (solid-->liquid or liquid-->vapour) then its temperature cannot increase until the transition is completed; so the plastic cannot burn when it's still liquid, if the amount of combustible vapour present is not enough to produce a flame. After melting, it starts decomposing becoming a material with higher melting point so its temperature increases and at the same time the decomposition produces volatile combustibles; now it starts burning.

With wood, for example, the first part of the process doesn't happen because it doesn't melt;
so, for this reason when you heat it with a flame its temperature can increase to a much higher value, then it starts decomposing forming volatile combustibles as methyl alcohol and acetone (if you need to clean your nails and shops are closed, you can distil wood!).

With a combustible like petrol, you already have combustible vapours present (if the temperature is not very low!) so it can burn even if it's still liquid, because what actually burns are the vapours, not the liquid.

With wax, for example, you have to melt it with a flame and then keep increasing the temperature a little till the amount of vapours present are enough to generate a flame with air.
The same to burn a metal like magnesium, for example: your lighter gives heat to the metal; it absorbs heat to the point it melts; then, keeping the flame, the liquid tiny drop formed increases its temperature to the boiling point (or almost) which is ~ 1100C and so the vapours formed can burn with air forming that Very brilliant white light.

This is the reason you can burn magnesium but not aluminum (it's very very difficult), even if they have similar melting points (~ 650 C): they have Very different boiling point: ~ 1100C for magnesium (you can reach that temperature with a lighter) and ~ 2500C for aluminum! (you certainly cannot reach it with a lighter or with a burner).

The reason paper and wood forms ash is because they contains mineral salts, especially the potassium salt K2CO3. Infact they used ash to make soap, ~ 100 years ago (boiling ash with grease).
« Last Edit: 26/04/2007 14:09:50 by lightarrow »
 

The Naked Scientists Forum

Why doesn't plastic burn?
« Reply #5 on: 26/04/2007 13:33:38 »

 

SMF 2.0.10 | SMF © 2015, Simple Machines
SMFAds for Free Forums