My favorite metals-related article this week? Let Burning Metals Lie, a piece on the risks of industrial metal fires, featured online in Popular Science this Wednesday. Firefighters, it appears, have little control over these fires, so halting the blaze is out of the question. Instead, easily ignited metals such as lithium, sodium, and magnesium, have to control themselves: they “build up ash that chokes off their oxygen supply, so they slowly burn out.” Attempting to resist one of these fires will make matters much, much worse.
It’s a matter of carbon dioxide fueling a fire that gets abnormally hot instead of fanning its flames. “For example,” the article reads, “magnesium burns brighter immersed in carbon dioxide than it does in air. Blow a CO2 fire extinguisher at gently burning magnesium shavings, and the pile will suddenly burn much hotter and faster.”
The article evokes the memory of a 1993 sodium fire at an industrial plant in Mississippi. Firefighters attempted to extinguish the flames with stored salt, but the unnoticed dampness of the salt added to the problem, and some firefighters were severely burned. Recently, an industrial blaze that sprang from flammable nickel and copper sulfate led to $1 million in damage for one scrap metal plant. Another scrap metals plant has spent $5 million on upgrades to avoid future fires.
Prevention is the best policy, but it’s important to know that once a metal blaze begins, trying to fight the fire yourself can add to the danger of the situation. It can even lead to explosions. Check out Popular Science for more information, pictures, and a fascinating video with a clear “don’t-try-this-at-home” warning!