Why Do Some Liquids Burn?
Some liquids will burn because when their molecules mix with the oxygen in the air the mixture becomes combustible. The application of heat promotes the necessary chemical reaction to put the molecules into more violent motion, so that they collide at high speed. The jolt loosens the bonds and makes it easier for the molecules to rearrange themselves and escape from the liquid to form a vapour, mixing with oxygen in the air.
The most important liquid which will burn is crude mineral oil from which petrol and paraffin are produced. Others include tar and creosote, and the very explosive nitro-glycerine. Flammable and combustible liquids are liquids that can burn. They are classified, or grouped, as either flammable or combustible by their flashpoints. Generally speaking, flammable liquids will ignite (catch on fire) and burn easily at normal working temperatures. Combustible liquids have the ability to burn at temperatures that are usually above working temperatures.
There are several specific technical criteria and test methods for identifying flammable and combustible liquids. Under the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) 1988, flammable liquids have a flashpoint below 37.8°C (100°F). Combustible liquids have a flashpoint at or above 37.8°C (100°F) and below 93.3°C (200°F).
Flammable and combustible liquids are present in almost every workplace. Fuels and many common products like solvents, thinners, cleaners, adhesives, paints, waxes and polishes may be flammable or combustible liquids. Everyone who works with these liquids must be aware of their hazards and how to work safely with them.
The flashpoint of a liquid is the lowest temperature at which the liquid gives off enough vapour to be ignited (start burning) at the surface of the liquid. Sometimes more than one flashpoint is reported for a chemical. Since testing methods and purity of the liquid tested may vary, flashpoints are intended to be used as guides only, not as fine lines between safe and unsafe.
Flammable and combustible liquids themselves do not burn. It is the mixture of their vapours and air that burns. Gasoline, with a flashpoint of -40°C (-40°F), is a flammable liquid. Even at temperatures as low as -40°C (-40°F), it gives off enough vapour to form a burnable mixture in air. Phenol is a combustible liquid. It has a flashpoint of 79°C (175°F), so it must be heated above that temperature before it can be ignited in air.