Students and Faculty members heard from Head of School Margarita Curtis at school meeting that “spontaneous combustion” caused the recent fire in the dining hall. But those of us who are not chemistry teachers were left to wonder what that actually means and how such a “combustion” could occur.
Spontaneous combustion, according to chemistry teacher Mark Teutsch, occurs when different types of organic-based solvents are “loosely associated with oxygen.”
“It happens a lot in situations with oily rags, like auto garages,” Mr. Teutsch explained. In the case of the dining hall, it was the different oils on kitchen linens that were the triggers.
When these oily materials are exposed to oxygen, it creates the potential for chemical reactions called oxidation-reduction reactions, which can produce heat. If these reactions produce enough heat, the “flashpoint” can be reached.
Mr. Teutsch explained that the flashpoint of a reaction is the temperature at which the reaction can go spontaneous. At this point, spontaneous combustion can occur, as when the linens suddenly caught on fire.
If the kitchen linens had not been warmed from the dryer, they most likely would not have combusted. However, because they were heated, they reached the flashpoint quickly.