Researchers at Cornell University have discovered a previously undetected family of chemical compounds, called enols, created inside a wide variety of fires. Conceivably, further study of the burning process could eventually allow scientists to develop materials that burn cleaner.
"The question is: Is there some way you can tailor the chemistry to avoid these hydrocarbons?" said Terrill Cool, professor of applied and engineering physics at Cornell. "We think that maybe isomers like this will be shown to be influential in the formation of soot."
Although it looks simple, fire is actually quite complex. Hundreds of intermediate chemical compounds are created and extinguished during the burning process. While scientists have been studying the chemistry of fire for at least 150 years, enols weren't discovered because they have the same mass as similar, previously detected compounds.
Typically, scientists harvest samples of the chemicals in a flame, apply an electrical charge and then time how long it takes for the electrically charged molecules to reach a detector. Heavier ions take longer, so scientists use the time to determine mass.
Cool applied a new technique that reveals both the structure and mass of the compounds present.
Enols have a structure that includes properties of both alkenes and alcohols. Ethenol (CH2CHOH), also known as vinyl alcohol, is one of the more common enols and is used in latex paint and hairspray.