21 Oct 2010

Spontaneous Combustion

From Our Changing World, 9:20 pm on 21 October 2010

Industrial mathematician Graeme Wake is an expert in the maths of spontaneous combustion, and the 'theory of ignition'

Industrial mathematician Graeme Wake is a professor in the Institute of Information and Mathematical Sciences at Massey University, and Director of the Centre for Mathematics in Industry. He is also a world expert in spontaneous combustion, an area that he describes mathematically as 'gross parametric sensitivity', and which is the second most common cause of unwanted fires, after arson. He talks with Alison Ballance about how he became involved in spontaneous combustion in the early 1960s, working with chemists at DSIR Chemistry to understand a fire in a wool store on the Wellington waterfront in 1948 that damaged much of the surrounding area, with a view to developing safe practise for the storage of items ranging from coal, to milk powder and sugar cane residue.

Graeme Wake also describes a recent long running insurance case he was involved in with his long time collaborator, Sydney chemist Brian Gray, in which a cargo of calcium hypochlorite, a common ingredient in laundry detergents, exploded in the hold of the marine vessel Aconcagua (PDF page 23). The pair proved that the cause of the spontaneous explosion was due to a fault in the manufacturing process.

A 1985 Department of Labour report (PDF) on 'Dust Explosions in Factories' makes interesting reading, while Fire Afloat is an interesting web page detailing examples of early sailing boats in New Zealand that suffered fires caused by spontaneous combustion in their holds of cargo ranging from flax to wool.