Ignition of zirconium powders placed near an electrostatic discharge

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Electrostatic discharge (ESD) or spark produced by breakdown of a gap while discharging a capacitor is a common ignition stimulus for powders of reactive and energetic materials. It is a safety hazard, but is also used to initiate pyrotechnic formulations and as a characterization method of reactivity of energetic materials. In previous experimental studies, the powder served as one of the ESD electrodes. Ignition was found to be caused by Joule heating, with the main heat release by current passing through points of contact between particles. However, ignition may occur when the ESD does not pass directly through the powder. ESD generates a shock wave, which can lift the powder from a substrate even if the substrate is not an electrode. ESD also generates a plasma kernel heated to ca. 10,000 K, which exists for hundreds of µs, often much longer than the ESD current. Here, the effect of the ESD-induced shock and plasma on a reactive powder was studied experimentally for the first time. A thin layer of Zr powder was placed on a substrate located under a spark gap between two pin electrodes. Photo-sensors and high-speed video were used to document ignition and combustion events. The ESD energy and distance from the spark gap and powder were varied. At close distances, particles ignited consistently. Distance limits were determined, beyond which ignition was no longer observed. Higher ESD energies as well as longer ESD pulses led to ignition at greater distances. Ignition involved two distinct processes. First, submicron particles were lifted from the substrate on a time scale of single microseconds, interacted directly with the plasma kernel, and combusted. Optical emissions from this combustion lasted 100 – 600 µs, as expected for the burn time of submicron Zr particles in air. The second ignition event occurred several milliseconds later. It involved a flame propagating through Zr powder aerosol or combustion of individual lifted particles. This event was caused by coarser Zr particles radiatively heated during ESD. Importantly, the powder was aerosolized by convective flows caused by the rising plasma kernel making it possible for the self-heating of particles oxidizing in air to eventually lead to their ignition and combustion. Observed times for these delayed ignition and combustion events were in the order of tens of milliseconds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalCombustion and Flame
StatePublished - Apr 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Chemistry
  • General Chemical Engineering
  • Fuel Technology
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology
  • General Physics and Astronomy


  • Heterogeneous combustion
  • Metal combustion
  • Plasma kernel
  • Reactive materials
  • Spark


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