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Is fire a plasma?

  1. Dec 8, 2007 #1
    Hey everybody.

    I heard a physics professor at Berkeley say that normal fire (from a lighter) is plasma. My science teacher at high school says that it isn't. So my question is, is normal fire in state of plasma or not?

    Last edited: Dec 8, 2007
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  3. Dec 8, 2007 #2

    Doc Al

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  4. Dec 8, 2007 #3
    Sorry I'm not from an English speaking country. Is there something you don't understand? When I say that, I mean plasma like there also are gas, liquid and solid. That kind of plasma.
  5. Dec 8, 2007 #4

    Doc Al

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    It's a link. Click it. :wink:
  6. Dec 8, 2007 #5
    Oh thanks, nice experiment he made :D I'm writing my 3rd year assigntment on "light perceptions throughout history" in physics and history. I hope it's okay if I return to ask more questions some other day?
  7. Dec 8, 2007 #6


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    Do you know what temperatures/charges would be needed to turn air into a plasma?
  8. Dec 8, 2007 #7
    There would be needed a high enough temperature to kick the electrons all the way of the gas, to create ions. I would assume a couple of thousand degrees C. probably 2-3000.
  9. Dec 8, 2007 #8
    How much dissociation is required before an ionic cloud like a flame is considered a plasma? Since a 'true' plasma is in equilibrium, there must always be a very small proportion of ions that momentarily carry at least one bound electron; so at what point does 'ionised gas' stop and 'plasma' begin?
  10. Dec 8, 2007 #9


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    We insist upon it, and hope that you will help to answer the questions of others who have lesser knowledge. The beauty of PF is that you can learn and teach at the same time.
  11. Dec 30, 2007 #10
    I'm afraid I must disagree with Dr. David P. Stern's answer, but I think this is down to definitions and properties. The Contemporary Physics Education Project produces a poster on plasmas in which flames (ie. fire) is shown as a plasma. In his book, Introduction to Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion, Francis F. Chen notes:

    Any ionized gas cannot be called a plasma, of course; there is always a small degree of ionization in any gas. A useful definition is as follows: A plasma is a quasineutral gas, of charged a neutral particles, which exhibit collective behavior. (Ref)​

    He further goes on to describe three parameters that need to be satisfied in order to identify a plasma. These are probably better summarzed on Wikipedia (plasma) as: (1) the plasma approximation (2) Bulk interactions (3) Plasma frequency.

    In his book, Chen goes on to assess whether certain phenomena are indeed plasma, based on the three parameters, and concludes that a typical flame does indeed meet the criteria of being a plasma.

    In practice then, fire is a highly-collisional, partially ionized plasma in which the collisions might mask some of the collective behavior.
  12. Dec 30, 2007 #11


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    Please show where Chen says a 'flame' meets the three criteria for being a plasma.

    Chen does state that "the weakly ionized gas in a jet exhaust, for example, does not qualify as a plasma because the charged particles collide so frequently with neutral atoms that their motion is controlled by ordinary hydrodynamic forces rather than by electromagnetic forces." Section 1.6, Criteria for Plasmas.


    An acetylene-oxygen flame at 3300 K is too cold to have sufficient ionization to be considered a plasma!
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2007
  13. Dec 30, 2007 #12
    Either way the question was not answered... is a regular fire plasma or not... of course it's not hot enough but is it considered to be in that form of matter or is it a gas...??
  14. Dec 30, 2007 #13


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    Flame and exhaust are simply hot gases, as Chen indicated in his text "the weakly ionized gas in a jet exhaust, for example, does not qualify as a plasma because the charged particles collide so frequently with neutral atoms that their motion is controlled by ordinary hydrodynamic forces rather than by electromagnetic forces." Section 1.6, Criteria for Plasmas.

    DocAl pointed to a NASA site in which a scientist measured the electrical conductivity of a flame. The flame did NOT conduct electricity.
  15. Dec 31, 2007 #14
    Here in his Problems Item No.6, "A typical flame" in which he asks rhetorically, "Convince yourself that these are plasmas". Perhaps Chen's KT=0.1 is too high for a typical plasma.)

    If you wish to accept this as a criteria for defining a plasma, then flames would not be a plasma. And while conductivity is a typical characteristic of plasmas, as far as I know, it is not used to define one. I suspect that a flame is a borderline plasma according to Chen's criteria, one that is not sufficiently ionized to be able to measure any electrical conductivity.

    It's also possible that Dr. David P. Stern was unable to detect the conductivity of a flame. I note the following papers which suggest otherwise:
    I concede that many of these are not typical flames (and I think a flame plasma is one produced from a plasma, rather than a burning flame).
    Last edited: Dec 31, 2007
  16. Dec 31, 2007 #15
    I think, if you interpret the opinions voiced here in a certain light, it would be most correct to say that a flame is not a thermodynamic phase at all in this sense. An ordinary candle or bonfire flame contains hot particles of solids, ionised gases, non-ionised gaseous volatiles and probably many more transient objects besides. Certain instances of flame may begin to show some of the electromagnetic properties characteristic of true plasmas. In other words, there isn't a 'yes' or 'no' answer.
  17. Dec 31, 2007 #16
    "We also subjected the candle flame to very strong horizontal electrical fields. The flame splits into two horizontal flames" (ref)

    I recall doing something like this in physics class.

    I am not sure whether this suggests that the flame is ionized (and hence a plasma), or whether the electric field contributes to the ionization process?
    Last edited: Dec 31, 2007
  18. Jan 1, 2008 #17


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    Actually kT=0.1 would be too low for a typical plasma, but is correct for a typical flame at about 1160 K, however in addition to the energy/temperature one has to look at the particle density.

    If one applies the basic relationship between pressure (P), particle density (n) and temperature (kinetic energy) kT for a plasma or gas, namely P = nkT, then we can write

    n = P / kT, and for a typcial flame, P ~ 1 atm (105 Pa), and kT = 0.1 eV, then one obtains

    n = (105 J/m3)/ (0.1 eV * 1.602x10-19 J/ev) = 6.2 x 1024 m-3.

    Even an order of magnitude less, the atomic density in gas is ~1023 m-3.

    A gas with a particle density of 1024 m-3 would be essentially a vacuum, and in fact is less than a fusion plasma, and is certainly not a 'typical flame'.

    It appears that the example in Chen's textbook is in error, and instead n should equal 1024 and not 1014 m-3.

    I believe that typical flames are considered weakly ionized gases, weakly affected by static magnetic and electric fields. Certainly intense electric and magnetic fields (and electric currents) can be used to ionize a flame or gas, but that is not the issue here.
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2008
  19. Jan 2, 2008 #18
    I remember a demonstration with a tall gas flame that had two electrodes, one near the top, the other near the burner. The electrodes were excited with the output of a audio amplifier which had been passed through a transformer so that its voltage was on the order of 1000 volts (maybe more). You could hear music, from the audio source, coming out of the flame.

    The explaination they gave was that the small ion concentration in the flame conducted current from the electrodes which caused the flame to contract/expand generating music.
  20. Jan 2, 2008 #19
    Very unique and expensive to operate loud speaker.
    Flame does conduct electricity. You may have heard the FID : flame ionization detector
  21. Jan 2, 2008 #20
    Which would be consistent with flames being a plasma. I note more information can be found on Wikipedia on the flame ionization detector.
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