Weird as it seems, flammable metal isn't that rare-plasma cutting torches and magnesium photo flashes are two examples I've written about here. But you don't need anything fancy to send metal up in flames. Take a wad of steel wool (extra-fine 0000-grade works best), hold it in a pair of pliers, and light it with an ordinary match.
You won't get a big fireball, but it definitely burns-even faster if you blow on it. Bits of red-hot iron may fall to the ground, so do it outside and watch your feet.
If you can light steel wool with a match, why can't you light a nail? Or a cast-iron pot? It's a question of surface area versus volume. The burning process, which is just rapid oxidation of the metal, has to bring nearby iron to its ignition temperature fast enough to sustain a chain reaction. Thick pieces of iron conduct heat away far too fast for the surface to ever reach the ignition point. But in very thin strands, there's nowhere for the heat to go, and a burning patch can race along the length of wire, converting a whole steel-wool pad into iron oxide-rust-in less than a minute.
There isn't really a practical reason to burn steel wool (unless perhaps you were stuck in the woods with 50 pounds of it and a hot dog). But this form of rapid oxidation is similar to how cutting torches work. If your mom won't let you have one of those, this is the coolest way to watch something that seems unburnable go up in flames.
Lighting Steel Wool
Time: 2 Minutes
Safe | | | | |
Do this experiment outdoors, and always wear appropriate safety gear. Children should not attempt this experiment without adult supervision. Find more on Gray's scientific pursuits at periodictabletable.com and at popsci.com/graymatter.
Where can I get the blocks?
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I remembered when I was a child, I would playing with this steel wool. We would tie it up with cable from bicycle brake, and burn them. After that, spin it very hard to make a great fireworks. Never had any accidents happens before.
I have heard of using steel woll to start a fire,say in a survival situation,that`s why I checked out how to burn steel wool.While checking out this i seen the article on burning steel wool by popsci and just had to check it out,and since i wanted to comment on the article i signed up for popsci,just letting the author about a practicle use for burning steel wool.:)
Steel wool burns because of the oil film on it to keep it from rusting. The steel can melt, but it's not actually the steel that is burning. It is the oil.
There will be some oxidation of the iron, which is technically "burning," but not enough to produce much heat. It is the oil on the steel wool which ignites and burns with enough heat to sustain combustion.
Although the steel, itself, doesn't burn significantly, it DOES help the combustion process, by providing a solid matrix which holds the oil in contact with a relatively large amount of air.
Fine steel wool makes an excellent tinder to start a campfire, but only because of the oil which coats it.
This happens often when a power grinder is grinding some steel. We see sparks fly. These are not electric sparks. Instead they are tiny bits of steel which have become white hot and are burning. Have you ever used flint and steel to start a fire? Same thing. Tiny bits of metal get heated white hot, and they catch fire. Its not "oil".Its really the steel that "catches on fire"!
That's how a blow torch works, it heats metal up fast enough until it vaporizes in air, that's how it cuts through stuff.
Mr. Gray, your statement that "Thick pieces of iron conduct heat away far too fast for the surface to ever reach the ignition point" is ambiguous. It is correct that an ordinary match could not provide enough energy to ignite a thick piece of iron, but it is not correct that a thick piece of iron could not ever reach ignition. The key is providing enough energy to raise the thick piece of iron (or steel) to the ignition point by providing the energy faster than it could dissipate.
I'm arguing with an esteemed gentleman on YouTube right now, who cites your article as his proof that the steel beams of the WTC towers could not have oxidized rapidly enough for them to undergo self-sustaining rapid oxidation (that is, burn). He argues that steel wool is a different alloy than structural steel, and the larger size of the beams means that rapid oxidation of large beams is not possible. Of course, I would appreciate it if you could disabuse him of his error.
A popular use for 'burning' steel wool is photography. The image shows a time exposure where the accelerated oxygenation process creates some fairly interesting effects.