by Chris Woodford. Last updated: June 20, 2013.
Fire is one of humankind's oldest discoveries; it's also one of our biggest threats. A fire can destroy in a matter of minutes a home or business that has taken decades to establish. That's why methods of putting out fires are so important. Many buildings are equipped with fire extinguishers, but why are there so many different kinds? What do they do to a fire? And how exactly do they work?
Photo: Putting out a fire caused, by a mortar attack, with a carbon dioxide (CO2) extinguisher. The white cloud coming from the horn is formed when liquid carbon dioxide stored under pressure in the extinguisher turns back to a gas. Photo by Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson courtesy of US Army.
What is fire?
Ask most people what a fire is and they'll tell you it's something frightening and destructive involving flames. But to a scientist, a fire is something much more precise. A fire is actually a chemical reaction called combustion. When combustion happens, substances like wood, paper, oil, or coal (all of which are made from chemicals, even if you don't immediately think of them that way) combine with oxygen in the air to produce water, carbon dioxide, waste gases—and an awful lot of heat. Combustion doesn't normally happen all by itself: things don't burst into flames without help. It usually takes some activation energy (provided by a spark or a match) to kick off the reaction. Once combustion is underway, the fire seems to continue all by itself.
The fire triangle
That's not quite true. Fire happens when three things are in the same place at the same time:
- Fuel (something to burn—such as wood or coal).
- Oxygen (usually from the air).
A fire can burn when all these things are present; it will stop when at least one of them is removed. As any fire-fighter will tell you, putting out a fire involves breaking the fire triangle—which means removing either the fuel, the heat, or the oxygen. Suppose a fire breaks out in a pan on top of your cooker, the first thing you normally do is switch off the heat. If that doesn't work, you might soak a towel with water and place it very carefully over the pan (or, better still, use a fire blanket). The towel is designed to block off the supply of oxygen to the fire (the water stops the towel from catching fire and making things worse). Every fire-fighting technique you can think of involves removing heat, oxygen, or fuel—sometimes more than one of those things at the same time.
Photo: You need to to take away one or more of heat, air (oxygen), or fuel to break the triangle and put the fire.
How fire extinguishers work
Inside, a fire extinguisher is quite like a giant aerosol can, often with two different substances inside. One of them is a solid, liquid, or gas substance for fighting the fire. The other one is called a propellant and is a pressurized chemical that makes the fire-fighting substance come out when you press the extinguisher handle. Next time you see a fire extinguisher, take a good look. Have you noticed that fire extinguishers are always really strong steel canisters? That because the propellant is stored inside at a high pressure. Strong canisters are needed to stop the extinguishers exploding!
There are three main types of extinguisher and they work in slightly different ways:
- Water extinguishers, which are the most common, are essentially tanks full of water with compressed (tightly squeezed) air as the propellant to make them come out. Water extinguishers work by removing heat from the fire.
- Dry chemical extinguishers are tanks of foam or dry powder with compressed nitrogen as the propellant. They work by smothering the fire: when you put a layer of powder or foam on the fire, you cut the fuel off from the oxygen around it, and the fire goes out.
- Carbon dioxide (CO2) extinguishers contain a mixture of liquid and gaseous carbon dioxide (a nonflammable gas). CO2 is normally a gas at room temperature and pressure. It has to be stored under high pressure to make it a liquid. When you release the pressure, the gas expands enormously and cools to make a huge white jet. CO2 attacks the fire triangle in two ways: it smothers the oxygen and, because it's so cold, it also removes heat.
It's important always to use the right extinguisher for the fire. Using the wrong extinguisher can put your life in danger and make the fire worse. For example, you must never use water extinguishers on electrical fires because you could electrocute yourself and the people nearby. If you're in the slightest doubt about tackling a fire, leave it alone and get yourself to safety.
Photo: Some extinguishers have pressure gauges on top so you can check they're correctly pressurized and safe to operate. If the pressure is either too high or too low, the needle moves into the upper or lower red zone. On this dry-powder extinguisher, the needle is right in the middle: still safely in the green zone, pressurized to about 14 times atmospheric pressure (the normal pressure of the air around us).