What? I Can Use Iron as a Fuel?!

Heat Conductivity

However when it comes to burning metals, there is more interesting physics going on. Your iron pan does not catch fire because metals are very good conductors of heat. That means when a gas flame on the stove heats up a point on the pan, heat quickly flows from that point to the rest of the pan, quickly cooling the point down. It is thus very hard to heat a point on a big chunk of metal to ignition temperature, because the rest of the metal will cool down whatever point you try to heat up, by sucking up heat.

Surface Area Exposed to Oxidizer

An oxidizer is an element which strongly attracts electrons, while a reducer is an element which easily gives away electrons. A typical oxidizer is oxygen, hence the name. Given high enough temperature a metal will act as a reducer, giving away its electrons to oxygen and forming a metal oxide such as iron oxide, commonly known as rust or iron ore.

  1. There is less other metal to conduct heat to, and potentially cooling down the metal before it ignites.

Steel Cutting Example

I think a nice example of this is how you can cut steel beams with just oxygen. A welder can start with oxy-acetylene, meaning he has a tank of acetylene gas and another of oxygen which react to produce a hot flame. You apply this hot flame to a steel beam to cut it. It is the melting that cuts it. Once you start, you can turn off the acetylene and use pure oxygen, because hot iron will react with the oxygen and create iron oxide. This process is highly exothermic, meaning it releases a lot of heat. Thus released heat will keep the process of melting the steel going.

Benefits of Metals as Fuel

The reason why you never hear about metals being used as fuel, is because we have been blessed with an abundance of cheap fossil fuels for hundreds of years.

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Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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Erik Engheim

Erik Engheim

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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