AskDefine | Define smolder

Dictionary Definition



1 burn slowly and without a flame; "a smoldering fire" [syn: smoulder]
2 have strong suppressed feelings [syn: smoulder]

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative spellings



  1. To burn with no flame and little smoke.
  2. To show signs of repressed anger or suppressed mental turmoil or other strong emotion, such as passion.


To burn with no flame and little smoke
To show signs of repressed anger or suppressed mental turmoil or other strong emotion

Extensive Definition

Smouldering (or smoldering in American spelling) is a flameless form of combustion, deriving its heat from oxidations occurring on the surface of a solid fuel. Common examples are the initiation of fires on upholstered furniture by weak heat sources (e.g., a cigarette, a short-circuited wire), and the persistent combustion of biomass behind the flaming front of wildland fires.


The fundamental difference between smouldering and flaming combustion is that smouldering occurs on the surface of the solid rather than in the gas phase. The characteristic temperature and heat released during smouldering are low compared to those in the flaming combustion (i.e., ~600°C vs. ~1500°C). Smouldering propagates in a creeping fashion, around 0.1 mm/s, which is about ten times slower than flames spread over a solid. In spite of its weak combustion characteristics, smouldering is a significant fire hazard. Smouldering emits toxic gases (e.g., carbon monoxide) at a higher yield than flaming fires and leaves behind a significant amount of solid residue. The emitted gases are flammable and could later be ignited in the gas phase, triggering the transition to flaming combustion.

Smouldering materials

Many materials can sustain a smouldering reaction, including coal, tobacco, decaying wood and sawdust, biomass fuels on the forest surface (duff) and subsurface (peat), cotton clothing and string, and polymeric foams (e.g., upholstery and bedding materials). Smouldering fuels are generally porous, permeable to flow and formed by aggregates (particulates, grains, fibres or of cellular structure). These aggregates facilitate the surface reaction with oxygen by allowing gas flow through the fuel and providing a large surface area per unit volume. They also act as thermal insulation, reducing heat losses. The most studied materials to date are cellulose and polyurethane foams.

Some smouldering cases

The characteristics of smouldering fires make them a threat of new dimensions, taking the form of colossal underground fires or silent fire safety risks, as summarized below.
  • Fire safety: The main hazards posed by smouldering arise from the fact that it can be easily initiated (by heat sources too weak to ignite flames) and is difficult to detect. Fire statistics draw attention to the magnitude of smouldering combustion as the leading cause of fire deaths in residential areas (i.e., more than 25% of the fire deaths in the United States are attributed to smoulder-initiated fires, with similar figures in other developed countries). A particularly common fire scenario is a cigarette igniting a piece of upholstered furniture. This ignition leads to a smouldering fire that lasts for a long period of time (in the order of hours), spreading slowly and silently until critical conditions are attained and flames suddenly erupt . Smouldering combustion is also a fire-safety concern aboard space facilities (e.g., International Space Station), because the absence of gravity is thought to promote smouldering ignition and propagation.
  • Wildland fires: Smouldering combustion has a great impact in forest fires, being responsible for a large amount of the fuel consumed and the pollutants emitted. Smouldering combustion of the forest ground does not have the visually dramatic impact of flaming combustion; however, as the cause of the killing of roots, seeds, and plant stems at the ground level, it is an important component of forest fires. Smouldering of forest biomass can linger for days or weeks after flaming has ceased, resulting in large quantities of fuels consumed and becoming a global source of emissions to the atmosphere .
  • Subsurface fires: Fires occurring many meters below the surface are a type of smouldering event of colossal magnitude. Subsurface fires in coal mines, peat lands and landfills are rare events, but when active they can smoulder for very long periods of time (months or years), emitting enormous quantities of combustion gases into the atmosphere, causing deterioration of air quality and subsequent health problems. The oldest and largest fires in the world, burning for centuries, are smouldering fires. These fires are fed by the oxygen in the small but continuous flow of air through natural pipe networks, fractured strata, cracks, openings or abandoned mine shafts which permit the air to circulate into the subsurface. The reduced heat losses and high thermal inertia of the underground together with high fuel availability promote long-term smouldering combustion and allow for creeping but extensive propagation. These fires prove difficult to detect, and frustrate most efforts to extinguish them. The dramatic 1997 peatland fires in Borneo caused the recognition of subsurface smouldering fires as a global threat with significant economic, social and ecological impacts . The summer of 2006 saw the resurgence of the Borneo peat fires .
  • World Trade Center Debris: After the attack, fire and subsequent collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11 2001, the colossal pile of debris left on the site smouldered for more than five months. It resisted attempts by fire fighters to extinguish it until most of the rubble was removed. The effects of the gaseous and aerosolized products of smouldering on the health of the emergency workers were significant but the details are still a matter of debate.

Beneficial applications

Smouldering combustion also has a few beneficial applications.
  • In wildland fire management, controlled smouldering fires aiming at reducing the load of ground fuels are useful because they are easy to control and propagate, and because of their reduced effect on the ecosystem.
  • Smouldering of tires produces tar and energy at the same time, fostering the recycling of tires.
  • In-situ combustion of petroleum sites is increasingly used for oil recovery when traditional extraction methods prove inefficient or too costly.
  • In-situ smouldering combustion is being explored as a novel remediation technology for land contaminants.

References and external links

smolder in German: Schwelbrand
smolder in Lithuanian: Rusenimas
smolder in Swedish: Glöd

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

bake, be angry, be excitable, be in heat, be latent, be livid, be pissed, bellow, blaze, bloom, blow a gasket, blow up, bluster, boil, broil, browned off, bubble, burn, burst, carry on, catch fire, catch the infection, chafe, choke, churn, combust, come apart, cook, erupt, escape notice, excite easily, explode, ferment, fire up, flame, flame up, flare, flare up, flash up, flicker, flip, flush, fret, fry, fulminate, fume, fust, gasp, get excited, glow, go into hysterics, go on, hang fire, have a conniption, have a tantrum, hibernate, hit the ceiling, idle, incandesce, lie beneath, lie dormant, lie hid, lie low, lurk, make no sign, moil, pant, parch, pissed off, radiate heat, rage, raise Cain, raise hell, raise the devil, raise the roof, ramp, rant, rant and rave, rave, roast, run a temperature, scald, scorch, seethe, shimmer with heat, simmer, sizzle, sleep, slumber, smoke, smother, spark, stagnate, steam, stew, stifle, stir, storm, suffocate, sweat, swelter, take fire, take on, throw a fit, toast, turn a hair, underlie, vegetate
Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1