Everyday substances that can cause a dust explosion

Many everyday products – starch, powdered milk, cocoa, coffee … – can star in a good explosion of this kind. Why, if these materials do not usually burn when we put a lit match on them? For them to bundle, the key is that the particles that compose them are very fine and are surrounded by oxygen. By having a large contact surface with respect to a proportionally very small mass, each particle of dust ignites easily, without requiring too much energy.

For these fragments to ignite, they must be less than 500 microns (µm) in diameter. Let’s remember: a micrometer is one thousandth of a millimeter. Powdered wheat flour particles, for example, reach a diameter of 50 µm.

Lycopodium clavatum is a very common plant. Its spores are yellow in color and have an average diameter of only 25 µm. This product was used in the flashes of the first cameras. Its hydrophobic properties and structure made the inventors take advantage of it to develop various prototypes. French chemist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce added Lycopodium powder to the fuel of one of the first internal combustion engines in history, in which he worked with his brother Claude in the early 19th century. In 1938, the American physicist, inventor and businessman Chester Carlson used it in his first experiments with xerography, a technique that is the basis of printers.

Today, Lycopodium powder is added as a lubricant in latex gloves and condoms. Its pyrotechnic power also works in fireworks, spectacular magic tricks or film and theater special effects.

Every year there are hundreds of dust explosions in the world that kill dozens of people. On June 27, 2015, one occurred in a water park in Taiwan, during a party that imitated Holi, the festival of colors celebrated in India, in which large quantities of dyed powders are thrown into the air that impregnate to the participants. In this case, powdered cornstarch was used that caught fire from a spark: the fire lasted 40 seconds, killed 15 people and caused burns of varying severity to 508.

Serve as a reminder that we are facing an experiment that must be done in a laboratory, with extreme caution and with the appropriate protections.

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