Smouldering (or smoldering in American spelling) is a flameless form of combustion, deriving its heat from oxidations occurring on the surface of a solid fuel. Common examples are the initiation of fires on upholstered furniture by weak heat sources (e.g., a cigarette, a short-circuited wire), and the persistent combustion of biomass behind the flaming front of wildland fires.


The fundamental difference between smouldering and flaming combustion is that smouldering occurs on the surface of the solid rather than in the gas phase. The characteristic temperature and heat released during smouldering are low compared to those in the flaming combustion (i.e., ~600°C vs. ~1500°C). Smouldering propagates in a creeping fashion, around 0.1 mm/s, which is about ten times slower than flames spread over a solid. In spite of its weak combustion characteristics, smouldering is a significant fire hazard. Smouldering emits toxic gases (e.g., carbon monoxide) at a higher yield than flaming fires and leaves behind a significant amount of solid residue. The emitted gases are flammable and could later be ignited in the gas phase, triggering the transition to flaming combustion. [ [] "Smoldering Combustion" by T.J. Ohlemiller, SFPE Handbook of Fire Protection Engineering (3rd Edition),2002.]

mouldering materials

Many materials can sustain a smouldering reaction, including coal, tobacco, decaying wood and sawdust, biomass fuels on the forest surface () and subsurface (peat), cotton clothing and string, and polymeric foams (e.g., upholstery and bedding materials). Smouldering fuels are generally porous, permeable to flow and formed by aggregates (particulates, grains, fibres or of cellular structure). These aggregates facilitate the surface reaction with oxygen by allowing gas flow through the fuel and providing a large surface area per unit volume. They also act as thermal insulation, reducing heat losses.The most studied materials to date are cellulose and polyurethane foams.

ome smouldering cases

The characteristics of smouldering fires make them a threat of new dimensions, taking the form of colossal underground fires or silent fire safety risks, as summarized below.
* Fire safety: The main hazards posed by smouldering arise from the fact that it can be easily initiated (by heat sources too weak to ignite flames) and is difficult to detect. Fire statistics draw attention to the magnitude of smouldering combustion as the leading cause of fire deaths in residential areas (i.e., more than 25% of the fire deaths in the United States are attributed to smoulder-initiated fires, with similar figures in other developed countries). A particularly common fire scenario is a cigarette igniting a piece of upholstered furniture. This ignition leads to a smouldering fire that lasts for a long period of time (in the order of hours), spreading slowly and silently until critical conditions are attained and flames suddenly erupt [ J. R. Hall, 2004, The Smoking-Material Fire Problem, Fire Analysis and Research Division of The National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA (USA). November 2004.] . Smouldering combustion is also a fire-safety concern aboard space facilities (e.g., International Space Station), because the absence of gravity is thought to promote smouldering ignition and propagation.
* Wildland fires: Smouldering combustion has a great impact in forest fires, being responsible for a large amount of the fuel consumed and the pollutants emitted. Smouldering combustion of the forest ground does not have the visually dramatic impact of flaming combustion; however, as the cause of the killing of roots, seeds, and plant stems at the ground level, it is an important component of forest fires. Smouldering of forest biomass can linger for days or weeks after flaming has ceased, resulting in large quantities of fuels consumed and becoming a global source of emissions to the atmosphere [A.A. Bertschi, R.J. Yokelson, D.E. Ward, R.E. Babbitt, R.A. Susott, J.G. Goode, W.M. Hao, 2003, Trace gas and particle emissions from fires in large diameter and belowground biomass fuels, Journal of Geophysical Research 108 (D13), pp. 8.1-8.12.] .

* Subsurface fires: Fires occurring many meters below the surface are a type of smouldering event of colossal magnitude. Subsurface fires in coal mines, peat lands and landfills are rare events, but when active they can smoulder for very long periods of time (months or years), emitting enormous quantities of combustion gases into the atmosphere, causing deterioration of air quality and subsequent health problems. The oldest and largest fires in the world, burning for centuries, are smouldering fires. These fires are fed by the oxygen in the small but continuous flow of air through natural pipe networks, fractured strata, cracks, openings or abandoned mine shafts which permit the air to circulate into the subsurface. The reduced heat losses and high thermal inertia of the underground together with high fuel availability promote long-term smouldering combustion and allow for creeping but extensive propagation. These fires prove difficult to detect, and frustrate most efforts to extinguish them. The dramatic 1997 peatland fires in Borneo caused the recognition of subsurface smouldering fires as a global threat with significant economic, social and ecological impacts [S.E. Page, F. Siegert, J.O. Rieley, H.-D.V. Boehm, A. Jaya, S. Limin, 2002, The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997, Nature 420, pp. 61-61.] [Fire Group at the University of Edinburgh.] . The summer of 2006 saw the resurgence of the Borneo peat fires [Forest fire haze brings misery to Indonesia and beyond, The Guardian, October 6, 2006.,,1889323,00.html] .

* World Trade Center Debris: After the attack, fire and subsequent collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11 2001, the colossal pile of debris left on the site smouldered for more than five months. It resisted attempts by fire fighters to extinguish it until most of the rubble was removed. The effects of the gaseous and aerosolized products of smouldering on the health of the emergency workers were significant but the details are still a matter of debate.

Beneficial applications

Smouldering combustion also has a few beneficial applications.
* In wildland fire management, controlled smouldering fires aiming at reducing the load of ground fuels are useful because they are easy to control and propagate, and because of their reduced effect on the ecosystem.
* Smouldering of tires produces tar and energy at the same time, fostering the recycling of tires.
* In-situ combustion of petroleum sites is increasingly used for oil recovery when traditional extraction methods prove inefficient or too costly.
* In-situ smouldering combustion is being explored as a novel remediation technology for land contaminants [In Situ Smouldering Combustion: A Novel Remediation Concept for NAPL Source Zones,J.I. Gerhard, J.L. Torero, C. Switzer, P. Pironi, and G. Rein, 2006 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, Invited talk, December 12, 2006.] .

References and external links

* [ Microgravity smouldering (NASA-funded) research facility at the University of California at Berkeley.]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Smoulder — Smoul der, v. i. See {Smolder}. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • smoulder — see SMOLDER (Cf. smolder) …   Etymology dictionary

  • smoulder — meaning ‘to burn slowly’, is spelt in this way in BrE and usually smolder in AmE …   Modern English usage

  • smoulder — (US also smolder) ► VERB 1) burn slowly with smoke but no flame. 2) feel intense and barely suppressed anger, hatred, lust, etc. ► NOUN ▪ an instance of smouldering. ORIGIN related to Dutch smeulen …   English terms dictionary

  • smoulder — [smōl′dər] vi., n. Brit. sp. of SMOLDER …   English World dictionary

  • smoulder — smoul|der BrE smolder AmE [ˈsməuldə US ˈsmouldər] v 1.) if something such as wood smoulders, it burns slowly without a flame 2.) [i]literary if someone smoulders or if their feelings smoulder, they have strong feelings that they do not fully… …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • smoulder — BrE, smolder AmE verb (I) 1 if something such as wood smoulders, it burns slowly without a flame: a smouldering log 2 if someone smoulders or if their feelings smoulder, they have strong feelings that they do not express: He sensed a smouldering… …   Longman dictionary of contemporary English

  • smoulder — UK [ˈsməʊldə(r)] / US [ˈsmoʊldər] verb [intransitive] Word forms smoulder : present tense I/you/we/they smoulder he/she/it smoulders present participle smouldering past tense smouldered past participle smouldered 1) to burn slowly, producing… …   English dictionary

  • smoulder — /ˈsmoʊldə / (say smohlduh) verb (i) 1. to burn or smoke without flame. 2. to exist or continue in a suppressed state or without outward demonstration. 3. to display repressed feelings, especially of indignation: his eyes smouldered. –noun 4.… …   Australian English dictionary

  • Smoulder — Smolder Smol der, Smoulder Smoul der, v. i. [imp. & p. p. {Smoldered}or {Smouldered}; p. pr. & vb. n. {Smoldering} or {Smouldering}.] [OE. smolderen; cf. Prov. G. sm[ o]len, smelen, D. smeulen. Cf. {Smell}.] 1. To burn and smoke without flame; to …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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