Examples of highly flammable chemicals used in the lab

Oct 22, 2019 Posted by Walter Ingles

The average laboratory manager will use an immense amount of flammable chemicals over the course of their career. While flammable liquids can be very useful in many chemical processes, they also can be dangerous if mishandled or stored incorrectly.

Aside from the risk of combustion which can lead to injury, death and destruction of property,  flammable liquids also present various health hazards beyond burns. For instance, dizziness or asphyxiation can be caused by excessive exposure to vapours emitted from flammable liquids.  

In order to keep yourself safe from the health hazards associated with flammable liquids it’s important to be aware of the risk associated with their dangerous properties. This will allow you to take certain measures to ensure your safety. One preventative measure that can be taken to ensure your safety is to keep your flammable chemicals in secure flammable storage cabinets while they are not being used.

Below are some examples of highly flammable substances commonly used in the laboratory.

Acetone

Acetone or propanone is an organic compound and the simplest ketone with a chemical formula of (CH3)2CO. This flammable substance is colorless and volatile. It is an important solvent often used as a cleaning agent in laboratories. Acetone has an extremely low flash point of −20 °C, giving it the ability to readily ignite at room temperature.

Acetone has other practical uses outside of the confines of the laboratory. Dermatologists use acetone with alcohol to peel off dry skin when treating acne. Because acetone has a very strong ability to dissolve glue, it is used to remove super glue residue from glass and porcelain.  

Benzene

Benzene is also an organic chemical compound. It's a hydrocarbon, which means that it only comprises of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Benzene is also highly flammable and has a flash point of -11.63 °C.

Benzene is commonly used as an intermediate when producing other chemicals. Benzene is a byproduct of fuel combustion and over half of the benzene produced in the world is used to make ethylbenzene. Ethylbenzene is used to make polymers and plastics. Over 20% of benzene is used to manufacture cumene, which is an important component in producing phenol acetone. Phenol acetone is then used to make resins and adhesives.

Cyclohexane

Cyclohexane is mainly used for industrial purposes. It is used to produce adipic acid and caprolactam which are two products used to produce nylon. Cyclohexane is a colorless liquid with a distinct scent. The strong smell in household detergents comes from cyclohexane. It is also very flammable with a flash point of -20 °C. Cyclohexane is often used in lab processes and it is also found in lab equipment. Laboratory scanning calorimetry instruments use cyclohexane for calibration.

Ethanol

Ethanol is a flammable liquid also known as alcohol, ethyl alcohol or drinking alcohol. It is volatile and colorless and has a distinct odor. Most alcoholic beverages contain a percentage of ethanol. Its flash point depends on its concentration. An extreme example would be pure ethanol which will ignite at 16.60 °C.

Ethanol is often used in hospitals, clinics and homes as an antiseptic. It is also used in medical wipes and hand sanitizers which are used to kill bacteria and fungi. When people get methanol or ethylene glycol poisoning, ethanol is often used as an effective antidote. It can also be used as an engine fuel or fuel additive. This is particularly common in South American countries. 

Methanol

Methanol is a flammable chemical also referred to as “wood alcohol”. It got its name “wood alcohol” because most methanol used to be produced from destructively distilling wood. Today most methanol is produced from a catalytic process involving carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Methanol is also a highly flammable liquid with a flash point between 11 and 12 °C.

The primary use of methanol is as a base product for manufacturing chemicals such as formaldehyde which is then use to produce plastics, paints and explosives. Methanol is also used to fuel some performance vehicles. Many laboratories around the world use methanol as a solvent.

Pentane

Pentane is an acyclic saturated hydrocarbon that falls into the alkane group. Each pentane molecule contains five carbon atoms and it exists as three different structural isomers. Pentane is often used as a fuel and solvent. It is also a very flammable liquid with a flash point of -49 °C.

Pentane is commonly used as solvents as its relatively inexpensive and they evaporate quickly. Pentane can also be effectively used to carry out a process called  “liquid chromatography” which is a laboratory technique for separating mixtures.   

Next Steps

Many of the highly flammable chemicals outlined above release flammable vapours that are harmful to your health. Exposure to these flammable vapours can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and asphyxiation. To reduce the risk of exposure to these chemicals, proper ventilation of chemical storage cabinets is required. For more information on how to ventilate dangerous goods storage cabinets, download our free eBook by clicking on the image below 👇.

How to ventilate dangerous goods storage cabinets

Walter Ingles

Walter Ingles Compliance Specialist

Walter is STOREMASTA’s Dangerous Goods Adviser. He loves helping businesses reduce the risk that Dangerous Goods pose upon their employees, property and the environment through safe and compliant dangerous goods storage solutions.

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