Flammability limit



Mixtures of dispersed combustible materials (such as gaseous or vaporised fuels, and some dusts) and air will burn only if the fuel concentration lies within well-defined lower and upper bounds determined experimentally, referred to as flammability limits or explosive limits. Combustion can range in violence from deflagration through detonation.
Limits vary with temperature and pressure, but are normally expressed in terms of volume percentage at 25 АC and atmospheric pressure. These limits are relevant both to producing and optimising explosion or combustion, as in an engine, or to preventing it, as in uncontrolled explosions of build-ups of combustible gas or dust. Attaining the best combustible or explosive mixture of a fuel and air (the stoichiometric proportion) is important in internal combustion engines such as gasoline or diesel engines.
Combustion can vary in degree of violence. A deflagration is a propagation of a combustion zone at a velocity less than the speed of sound in the unreacted medium. A detonation is a propagation of a combustion zone at a velocity greater than the speed of sound in the unreacted medium. An explosion is the bursting or rupture of an enclosure or container due to the development of internal pressure from a deflagration or detonation as defined in NFPA 69.
Usually atmospheric air supplies the oxygen for combustion, and limits assume the normal concentration of oxygen in air. Oxygen-enriched atmospheres enhance combustion, lowering the LFL and increasing the UFL, and vice versa; an atmosphere devoid of an oxidizer is neither flammable nor explosive for any fuel concentration. Significantly increasing the fraction of inert gases in an air mixture, at the expense of oxygen, increases the LFL and decreases the UFL.
Controlling gas and vapor concentrations outside the flammable limits is a major consideration in occupational safety and health. Methods used to control the concentration of a potentially explosive gas or vapor include use of sweep gas, an unreactive gas such as nitrogen or argon to dilute the explosive gas before coming in contact with air. Use of scrubbers or adsorption resins to remove explosive gases before release are also common. Gases can also be maintained safely at concentrations above the UEL, although a breach in the storage container can lead to explosive conditions or intense fires.
Flammability limits also depend on the particle size of the dust involved, and are not intrinsic properties of the material. In addition, a concentration above the LEL can be created suddenly from settled dust accumulations, so management by routine monitoring, as is done with gases and vapours, is of no value. The preferred method of managing combustible dust is by preventing accumulations of settled dust through process enclosure, ventilation, and surface cleaning. However, lower flammability limits may be relevant to plant design.