What-If 0097:" Burning Pollen"

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What-If 0097:" Burning Pollen"

Postby h0m54r » Wed May 21, 2014 4:51 am UTC

What-If 0097: Burning Pollen: http://whatif.xkcd.com/97

Jessica Thornburg wrote:What if you were to somehow ignite the pollen that floats around in the air in spring? Other than being a really bad idea, what effect would it have?

Jessica Thornburg


xkcd wrote:What IS fire? We just don't know.


One could say the same about birds.
Last edited by Angua on Sun Oct 26, 2014 12:17 pm UTC, edited 2 times in total.
Reason: That link can probably be allowed...

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby firesoul31 » Wed May 21, 2014 5:06 am UTC

Thanks, Philip.
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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Djehutynakht » Wed May 21, 2014 6:18 am UTC

Welcome, new poster.


...I say we burn it anyways, even if it will probably cause mass plant die-off.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby rhomboidal » Wed May 21, 2014 7:16 am UTC

A nuclear pollen bomb really puts a historically ironic spin on associating "flower power" with the peace movement.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Antior » Wed May 21, 2014 7:18 am UTC

A few facts:

- Back when folks were developing the first nuclear weapons, some were afraid that they would cause some kind of chain reaction, putting the entire sky on fire.

- From personal experience, I know that pollen allergies end as soon as you get out of puberty. If you still have a pollen allergy, this proves you never grew past puberty. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby cellocgw » Wed May 21, 2014 12:10 pm UTC

Best collection of Title-Texts in a long time. -- this sure could be another MythBusters scene. Remember when they set off an oil barrel-full of Cremora?

Now I gotta go read those Spanish and Minnesotan studies, as I'm metaphorically knee-deep in MODTRAN scattering models right now.

Oh, BTW, anyone else remember a short scifi story in The New Yorker maybe 10 years ago about a successful alien invasion? It was nothing but yellow spores, but thrived in Earth's climate and rapidly buried all dry land in a foot or two of yellow spore. game over :cry:
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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Red Hal » Wed May 21, 2014 12:20 pm UTC

I say we take off and nuke it all from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.
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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Quercus » Wed May 21, 2014 12:37 pm UTC

Antior wrote:- From personal experience, I know that pollen allergies end as soon as you get out of puberty. If you still have a pollen allergy, this proves you never grew past puberty. Enjoy it while it lasts.

My pollen allergy didn't start till I was out of puberty - does that mean I'm regressing?

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby ahammel » Wed May 21, 2014 1:49 pm UTC

Interesting fact: the Brown of Brownian motion was a botanist who noticed that his grains of pollen wouldn't stop moving when he suspended then in water to look at them under a microscope.

History does not record whether this is because they were on fire.
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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby firesoul31 » Wed May 21, 2014 2:14 pm UTC

rhomboidal wrote:A nuclear pollen bomb really puts a historically ironic spin on associating "flower power" with the peace movement.


Also, the daisy cutter bomb.
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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby cryptoengineer » Wed May 21, 2014 2:16 pm UTC

Most of the 'pollen burning' videos in the first youtube link don't actually show burning pollen. They show burning mats of cottonwood seeds. These seeds have many thin fibers attached, which lets them loft in the air in a similar way to dandelion seeds.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Philbert » Wed May 21, 2014 2:54 pm UTC

So fire requires fuel, oxygen and heat. I think the problem with burning actual pollen (as opposed to the kind in the video) is that the particles are too far dispersed for the heat generated by one burning particle to ignite the next one. So a sustained reaction would only be possible right after it leaves the tree in a big cloud, when they are still close together.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby pixeldigger » Wed May 21, 2014 3:25 pm UTC

Like this?
Image

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Whizbang » Wed May 21, 2014 3:26 pm UTC

I am pretty sure that kid is going to die.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby pixeldigger » Wed May 21, 2014 3:32 pm UTC

only if he has a lighter!

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Whizbang » Wed May 21, 2014 3:37 pm UTC

So, that's not smoke, but pollen (or dust, maybe)?

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Shamino » Wed May 21, 2014 3:45 pm UTC

The mention of powder explosions reminds me of the MythBusters episode involving a "creamer canon", where they burn a cloud of non-dairy creamer powder:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRw4ZRqmxOc

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby cellocgw » Wed May 21, 2014 4:11 pm UTC

BTW, fire does not require oxygen. There are other oxidizing reactions which can generate enough heat to produce the plasma (or whatever, I'm not getting into that controversy) and the resultant photon emissions as the reactants' electrons cool down.
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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Zassounotsukushi » Wed May 21, 2014 5:08 pm UTC

rhomboidal wrote:A nuclear pollen bomb really puts a historically ironic spin on associating "flower power" with the peace movement.


First thing that comes to my mind is the flower Mario eats to get the fire ball spitting ability.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby mattholimeau » Wed May 21, 2014 5:32 pm UTC

"a handful of pollen contains roughly the same number of calories as a hamburger."

This statement seems suspicious to me. Wouldn't it be that a handful of pollen burned will output the same amount of energy that a human will gain by digesting a hamburger? Digestion and combustion are radically different chemical processes - it's apples and oranges here. If you were to combust the hamburger, I would imagine it would output quite a few more calories than a handful of pollen (though that's just a guess - but seems reasonable based on an expected order of magnitude difference in mass between a hamburger and a handful of pollen).

Without further explanation of the comparison, it simply reads like misleading, bad science. Sure, you could say it's just a joke, as clearly it is, but in xkcd-land, I've come to expect jokes based on good science, that make me go "huh, neat!" as opposed to "what kind of marketing speak is this?" (So, my main reason for complaint here is a bit of a compliment - randall does good science, 99% of the time.)

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby rmsgrey » Wed May 21, 2014 5:47 pm UTC

mattholimeau wrote:"a handful of pollen contains roughly the same number of calories as a hamburger."

This statement seems suspicious to me. Wouldn't it be that a handful of pollen burned will output the same amount of energy that a human will gain by digesting a hamburger? Digestion and combustion are radically different chemical processes - it's apples and oranges here. If you were to combust the hamburger, I would imagine it would output quite a few more calories than a handful of pollen (though that's just a guess - but seems reasonable based on an expected order of magnitude difference in mass between a hamburger and a handful of pollen).

Without further explanation of the comparison, it simply reads like misleading, bad science. Sure, you could say it's just a joke, as clearly it is, but in xkcd-land, I've come to expect jokes based on good science, that make me go "huh, neat!" as opposed to "what kind of marketing speak is this?" (So, my main reason for complaint here is a bit of a compliment - randall does good science, 99% of the time.)

If I'm completely wrong, please let me know why! Thanks.


I'd expect a handful of pollen to contain roughly the same energy as a handful of meat - it's mostly protein and stored energy either way...

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Spectrum » Wed May 21, 2014 6:14 pm UTC

mattholimeau wrote:Wouldn't it be that a handful of pollen burned will output the same amount of energy that a human will gain by digesting a hamburger? Digestion and combustion are radically different chemical processes - it's apples and oranges here.


I don't know the science, but they do (or they used to) measure the caloric value of a food item by drying it and burning it in a pure oxygen atmosphere. (a "bomb calorimeter") So I suspect that for most or all foods, the food energy that you can extract is about the same as the combustion energy output. One of the articles linked in the What-If analyzed how animals digest pollen. It seems that some birds do digest pollen. Apparently the problem is to get through the outer layers, which are quite resistant to digestion. The bird seems to do it by ingesting nectar at the same time. The pollen grains germinate (generating pollen tubes), thus opening holes in the outer walls.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby kharnynb » Wed May 21, 2014 7:17 pm UTC

hmm i wonder....could you burn this then?
bah, cannot post links...trying to post the video from finnish news about the pollen dust clouds in raahe

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby ahammel » Wed May 21, 2014 8:38 pm UTC

Spectrum wrote:I don't know the science, but they do (or they used to) measure the caloric value of a food item by drying it and burning it in a pure oxygen atmosphere. (a "bomb calorimeter") So I suspect that for most or all foods, the food energy that you can extract is about the same as the combustion energy output.

Cellulose (aka dietary fibre, aka the stuff paper is made of) burns beautifully, but is quite indigestible.

You can do fancier available energy tests on food. I don't know whether they use those or the bomb calorimeter to get the nutritional values on the side if the cereal box.
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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Pfhorrest » Wed May 21, 2014 9:03 pm UTC

ahammel wrote:Cellulose (aka dietary fibre, aka the stuff paper is made of) burns beautifully, but is quite indigestible.

...by mammals, other than ungulates.
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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Mikeski » Wed May 21, 2014 9:21 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:
ahammel wrote:Cellulose (aka dietary fibre, aka the stuff paper is made of) burns beautifully, but is quite indigestible.

...by mammals, other than ungulates.

Not a lot of calorie-counting snails around, though, so correct enough in context.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby mattholimeau » Wed May 21, 2014 11:20 pm UTC

rmsgrey wrote:
mattholimeau wrote:...


I'd expect a handful of pollen to contain roughly the same energy as a handful of meat - it's mostly protein and stored energy either way...


I'd expect the same - I guess I should have pointed out my assumption that a typical hamburger would have maybe three to five times the volume of a handful of pollen. I don't really know what a handful of pollen would be like, so I'm guessing beach sand would be comparable when considering the amount of a "handful", which would be how much I would scoop up, and a good hamburger (not a mcdonalds "hamburger") would be significantly bigger.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Lukeonia1 » Thu May 22, 2014 3:38 am UTC

Hasn't anyone else pointed out yet, that the linked Youtube search doesn't actually turn up any videos of burning pollen?

They're all either unrelated videos, videos of burning cottonwood tree fluff (seeds and seed hairs), or videos of burning Lycopodium powder (fern spores, which might be "close enough"). I didn't see any videos of anyone burning any actual pollen.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Flumble » Thu May 22, 2014 6:45 am UTC

Lukeonia1 wrote:Hasn't anyone else pointed out yet, that the linked Youtube search doesn't actually turn up any videos of burning pollen?

Yeah, well, you could try and read the topic instead of guessing:
cryptoengineer wrote:Most of the 'pollen burning' videos in the first youtube link don't actually show burning pollen. They show burning mats of cottonwood seeds. These seeds have many thin fibers attached, which lets them loft in the air in a similar way to dandelion seeds.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby PayasYouDraw » Thu May 22, 2014 6:58 am UTC

mattholimeau wrote:
rmsgrey wrote:
mattholimeau wrote:...


I'd expect a handful of pollen to contain roughly the same energy as a handful of meat - it's mostly protein and stored energy either way...


I'd expect the same - I guess I should have pointed out my assumption that a typical hamburger would have maybe three to five times the volume of a handful of pollen. I don't really know what a handful of pollen would be like, so I'm guessing beach sand would be comparable when considering the amount of a "handful", which would be how much I would scoop up, and a good hamburger (not a mcdonalds "hamburger") would be significantly bigger.


I guess it depends on how big your hands and/or burgers are. I try to avoid burgers that a considerably bigger than my hands.

Randall didn't say whether it was the entire "sandwich" or just the meat when he wrote about the burger. I'm not sure what 1/4 lb of pollen looks like, but a handful seems a reasonable guess.
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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby mefuller » Thu May 22, 2014 5:30 pm UTC

Philbert's comment regarding spacing is the point I wanted to make - flammability limits. I don't have time to research and find if the limits are known, but whether the pollen-air mixture is of an appropriate ratio to be flammable is a point that probably should have been mentioned in the article. With all combustion, there is a range of mixtures that will ignite and mixtures with more oxidizer than the lower limit or more fuel than the upper limit (limits usually refer to fuel percentage e.g. lower explosive limit is the minimum amount of fuel in air or other oxidizer that will explode). Based on my experience (I did research on particle and dust combustion in graduate school), I suspect that almost always the pollen-air mixture will not support either deflagration or detonation (sub- or supersonic combustion). That said, every once in a while a grain silo blows up - dust explostions are a very real hazard when there is a sufficient concentration.
As an aside, flammability limits are one of the things that really speak to hazards - hydrogen has a high heating value, but it really light and of low density. One of the things that really makes it dangerous (other than the invisible flame) is that it will burn in almost any concentration: about 4% to 75% volume in air!

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Bacchus » Thu May 22, 2014 7:15 pm UTC

Okay:
First post. On any forum ever. I usually actively avoid fora, but something from this "What if?" was bugging me. The post wraps up by stating that if all the pollen in the air were gathered into one pile and set alight, then the resulting explosion. . . But doesn't the act of gathering the pollen into a pile negate the whole surface area thing? I'm thinking of the lycopodeum powder experiment from high school chem (lycopodeum powder is a mold spore, not a pollen, but the principle applies; the same goes for the iron, milk etc. used as an example in the post). Lycopodeum powder won't burn in a pile in your hand but will when dispersed in the air. Same for pollen, no?

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Philbert » Fri May 23, 2014 8:50 am UTC

Bacchus wrote:Okay:
First post. On any forum ever. I usually actively avoid fora, but something from this "What if?" was bugging me. The post wraps up by stating that if all the pollen in the air were gathered into one pile and set alight, then the resulting explosion. . . But doesn't the act of gathering the pollen into a pile negate the whole surface area thing? I'm thinking of the lycopodeum powder experiment from high school chem (lycopodeum powder is a mold spore, not a pollen, but the principle applies; the same goes for the iron, milk etc. used as an example in the post). Lycopodeum powder won't burn in a pile in your hand but will when dispersed in the air. Same for pollen, no?


Definitely. The key is that oxygen should be able to reach the fuel at a rate quick enough to sustain the reaction.

One of the fun experiments I did in university (I studied chemistry) was to make pyrophoric iron. It is basically a very elaborate process to make iron into a very fine powder. At the end of the experiment, the powder just sits there, until you pour it down from your test tube into a receptacle, which causes the fine iron powder to ignite spontaneously. Looks very cool, but it is 2 days work in the lab for a few seconds of fun. (look it up on Youtube)

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby Whizbang » Fri May 23, 2014 11:40 am UTC

Bacchus wrote:Words


I read it as if you magically gather all the pollen, then you can safely assume that you are magically igniting the pollen, either by magically spacing the pollen(s?) to the best effect or by just magically exploding them.

Magic.

A wizard did it.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby jaundice » Sat Jun 14, 2014 8:30 pm UTC

Sorry that it took me so long to do it, but I finally have experimental evidence on how flammable pollen is. I gathered up a ton of pollen (from red flower carpet rose), put it in a little pile, and held a lit match against it. I did the same thing with sawdust as a reference, as I just had them in a little pile on top of concrete (rather than trying to ignite with a specific dispersal pattern in the air). The idea was to do something comparable to what is already online with cottonwood fluff, but for actual pollen.

I found that pollen is roughly as flammable as sawdust, perhaps a bit more. I tried to include links to the videos on youtube, but when I did it said the post was flagged as spam automatically and wouldn't be posted. I guess you can search for "burning pollen" (upload by Jon Fisher) and "burning sawdust" (ditto). Is there a way to post the youtube links without the site thinking I'm a spammer?

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Jun 15, 2014 4:23 am UTC

You can't post links until you have 5 posts, or the board software will automatically flag them as spam. However, you could just post the v=### part from the YouTube url and people can go check those out on their own.
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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby PM 2Ring » Sun Jun 15, 2014 7:33 am UTC

Here are jaundice's videos, both around 30 seconds long.

Burning sawdust
Burning pollen

The quantities involved are fairly small, I guess about half a teaspoon or less. I expect the results would be a little more spectacular if you first dried the sawdust and the pollen using silica gel.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby jaundice » Sun Jun 15, 2014 3:01 pm UTC

Thanks for the assist! I originally planned to use more pollen, but it is a slow process collecting it, and after about 15 minutes I was feeling pretty self conscious. I did dry the pollen out, but simply by having it inside at about 40% rh for around two weeks, ditto with the sawdust. I guess a fairer test would have been to light it right easy for the purposes of the thought experiment, I just kept forgetting about it.

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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby ahammel » Sun Jun 15, 2014 5:46 pm UTC

jaundice wrote: I originally planned to use more pollen, but it is a slow process collecting it, and after about 15 minutes I was feeling pretty self conscious

If you can rig a dust buster with a fine paper filter, that works really well.

You know, if you ever want to collect a bunch of pollen again.
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Re: What-If 0097: Burning Pollen

Postby onoresrts63 » Mon Jun 16, 2014 4:05 am UTC

Lot of plants will die with property casualties...


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