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Science

Using carbon fuels

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Fuels react with oxygen to release energy. Complete combustion happens in a plentiful supply of air. Incomplete combustion occurs when the supply of air is limited.

Complete combustion releases more energy than incomplete combustion. Incomplete combustion also creates carbon monoxide, and more soot. Several factors must be considered when choosing the best fuel for a particular purpose.

Combustion

Fuels are substances that react with oxygen to release useful energy. Most of the energy is released as heat, but light energy is also released.

About 21 per cent of the air is oxygen. When a fuel burns in plenty of air, it receives enough oxygen for complete combustion.

Complete combustion

Complete combustion needs a plentiful supply of air so that the elements in the fuel react fully with oxygen.

Fuels such as natural gas and petrol contain hydrocarbons. These are compounds of hydrogen and carbon only. When they burn completely:

  • the carbon oxidises to carbon dioxide
  • the hydrogen oxidises to water - remember that water, H2O, is an oxide of hydrogen

In general for complete combustion:

hydrocarbon + oxygen    →    carbon dioxide + water

Incomplete combustion

Incomplete combustion occurs when the supply of air or oxygen is poor. Water is still produced, but carbon monoxide and carbon are produced instead of carbon dioxide.

In general for incomplete combustion:

hydrocarbon + oxygen    →    carbon monoxide + carbon + water

The carbon is released as soot. Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas, which is one reason why complete combustion is preferred to incomplete combustion. Gas fires and boilers must be serviced regularly to ensure they do not produce carbon monoxide.

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