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 air is oxygen. When a fuel burns in plenty of air, it receives enough oxygen for 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:
In general, for complete combustion:
hydrocarbon + oxygen → carbon dioxide + water
Here are the equations for the complete combustion of propane, used in bottled gas:
propane + oxygen → carbon dioxide + water
C3H8 + 5O2 → 3CO2 + 4H2O
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.
Carbon monoxide is absorbed in the lungs and binds with the haemoglobin in our red blood cells. This reduces the capacity of the blood to carry oxygen.
Here are the equations for the incomplete combustion of propane, where carbon is produced rather than carbon monoxide:
propane + oxygen → carbon + water
C3H8 + 2O2 → 3C + 4H2O