Can Combustion Be Spontaneous?
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Spontaneous: Having no apparent external cause or influence; occurring or produced by its own energy, force, etc. or through internal causes; self-acting (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 3rd Edition, 1997).
Spontaneous combustion—the term seems to suggest the impossible. Can everyday objects suddenly and mysteriously burst into flame? Skepticism is justified. Urban myths aside, spontaneous combustion does happen. And it occurs with enough frequency that those who are aware of the phenomenon and who work with susceptible materials have learned to adopt special handling techniques to reduce the chances.
Part of the problem—the myth, so-to-speak—is that spontaneous combustion is, well, far from spontaneous. There is a time element involved and herein lies the paradox. For a material to be heated, to smolder and then to burst into flame, the conditions (including a time element) are quite structured.
Time and an exposure to an elevated temperature are necessary for any candidate...