Though A-Team reruns would have you believe otherwise, vehicles that crash in real life aren’t immediately and inexorably consumed by giant explosions. Any movie geek knows this. Gasoline doesn’t explode—it burns, just like wood—except in the uncommon environment of an internal combustion engine. Yet our unlucky racer’s motorcycle blows up with such vigor, you’d think Michael Bay placed the explosive charges there himself. So what gives?
The answer lies in the way the bike tumbles across the racetrack. Take a close look at how it flips before conflagration. The first time the bike bounces off the ground, the force seems to knock the cap off the gas tank. As the bike flips again, you can see racing fuel spray out of the top of the tank in great arcs, billowing through the air along with the dirt and gravel kicked up by the skid. This, as they say, is a bad sign.
Gasoline, like every other fuel, needs oxygen to burn. Ordinarily, if you were to set a match to a pool of gasoline, only its surface would burn, because only its surface would be in contact with the oxygen in air. But as it’s injected into your engine, the gasoline is atomized (imagine a tiny gasoline spritzer set on “mist”) in order to thoroughly mix the fuel with air before your spark plug ignites the combination. Since every bit of nearby fuel is now surrounded by oxygen, this flame spreads almost instantaneously through the combustion chamber until everything is alight.
But in the case of the motorcycle explosion, the bike’s acrobatics did the work of atomizing the gasoline. Once a spark ignited the little droplets, the whole thing went up in a bang. So a word to the wise: If you’re going to have a catastrophic accident in a motorcycle race, try to keep your gas cap on. —Michael Moyer
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.