How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works
 

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
 
Question 171

If a flame always burns up, if you are in a weightless environment, how will the flame burn?
A flame should have serious problems in a weightless environment because it normally uses convection to carry burned gas away and to bring fresh air in. Since convection depends on gravity, there will be no tendency for the burned gas to leave and fresh air to replace it.

I talked with Kathryn Thornton, a former NASA astronaut who has actually performed combustion experiments in space and she described those experiments to me. In them, a drop of fuel was supported on a fiber and ignited. The flame front radiated outward from the fuel drop at ignition to form a spherical shell around the drop, which shrank slowly as it was consumed. Because convection requires gravity, there was no rising current of air to bring in new oxygen and to sweep away the burned gases. Instead, oxygen had to diffuse into the burning sphere and it did so quite slowly—the burns lasted for as much as 30 seconds on only a few cc's of fuel. Water vapor that formed during the combustion also had a tendency to diffuse into the fuel and dilute it so that it eventually stopped burning.

         

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