South Baltic Gas Forum
5 - 9 September 2011, Gdańsk, Poland

Combustibility and flammability

Flammable materials are those that ignite more easily than other materials, whereas those that are harder to ignite or burn less vigorously are combustible.
The degree of flammability or combustibility in air depends largely upon the chemical composition of the subject material, as well as the ratio of mass versus surface area. Take wood as an example. Finely divided wood dust can undergo explosive combustion and produce a blast wave. A piece of paper (made from wood) catches on fire quite easily. A heavy oak desk is much harder to ignite, even though the wood fibre is the same in all three materials.
Common sense (and indeed scientific consensus until the mid-1700s) would seem to suggest that material "disappears" when burned, as only the ash is left. In fact, there is an increase in weight because the combustible material reacts (or combines) chemically with oxygen, which also has mass. The original mass of combustible material and the mass of the oxygen required for combustion equals the mass of the combustion products (ash, water, carbon dioxide, and other gases). Antoine Lavoisier, one of the pioneers in these early insights, stated that Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed, which would later be known as the law of conservation of mass. Lavoisier used the experimental fact that some metals gained mass when they burned to support his ideas.
Flammability is the ability of a substance to burn or ignite, causing fire or combustion. The degree of difficulty required to cause the combustion of a substance is quantified through fire testing. Internationally, a variety of test protocols exist to quantify flammability. The ratings achieved are used in building codes, insurance requirements, fire codes and other regulations governing the use of building materials as well as the storage and handling of highly flammable substances inside and outside of structures and in surface and air transportation. For instance, changing an occupancy by altering the flammability of the contents requires the owner of a building to apply for a building permit to make sure that the overall fire protection design basis of the facility can take the change into account.
Combustibility is a measure of how easily a substance bursts into flame, through fire or combustion. This is an important property to consider when a substance is used for construction or is being stored. It is also important in processes that produce combustible substances as a by-product. Special precautions are usually required for substances that are easily combustible. These measures may include installation of fire sprinklers or storage remote from possible sources of ignition.

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