It's hard to fight a fire you can't see

This is not a metaphor. It is, in fact, rather difficult to fight invisible fires—as demonstrated by this clip from the 1981 Indianapolis 500, where fuel accidentally sprayed on a hot engine ignited an invisible, smoke-less fire on the car ... and on the racer and his crew. Everybody in this video survived, but it made me curious about what fuel they were using. Also: Why, if it's this difficult to put out invisible flames, would you use a fuel that produced invisible flames to begin with?

You might expect this was just the result of a bad decision. You'd be wrong. From 1965 until 2006, Indy cars ran on methanol, a fuel that's still used in a lot of other car racing categories, as well as in Monster Trucks. (And by the Chinese, who make it from coal.) Mostly made from the methane in natural gas, methanol was actually chosen as a racing fuel because it was safer than gasoline.

In 1964, two racers died and several others were injured when two gasoline-powered cars crashed, and the blinding smoke from the resulting fireball caused a seven-car pileup. Methanol was a solution to that problem. It burned clear, so when cars did wreck, everyone else on the track would be able to see what was going on. Bonus: You can put out a methanol fire with water alone, while spraying a petroleum fire with water will just give the petroleum something to float on, potentially spreading the fire further.

Turns out, the fire you can't see is actually safer—big picture—than the one you can. Which, I suppose, could be a metaphor for something.

(Video via Deadspin, Submitterated by shoelessjoakim)


  1. Methanol also has a higher octane rating so you can run a higher compression ratio for naturally aspirated engines or higher boost levels in forced-induction engines.

    This: more power.

  2. If I didn’t know those guys were on fire I might suspect that they were doing some sort of comedy routine or had just gone bat-shit insane.

  3. The invisible flame is one reason why they now mix in a small amount of gasoline to the ethanol fuel used now–the gasoline will still burn orange so you can see the fire. The other reason is that makes the stuff undrinkable :)

  4. There’s a certain flippancy about watching these guys run around, but moreso I’m incredibly creeped out by the idea of fire burning me up that I can’t see. Give me the willies thinking about it.

  5. re: The other reason is that makes the stuff undrinkable

    Methanol is already pretty thoroughly undrinkable; blindness and death. You might be thinking of ethanol, which can also be used as a fuel.

    1. If methanol is undrinkable, how do so many people drink it? How do we know it eventually causes blindness and death (after years of consumption) if you can’t drink it?

      Gasoline is nearly undrinkable. It makes you vomit before you can drink enough to be badly poisoned.

      Methanol is poisonous, but quite drinkable.

    2. “Methanol is already pretty thoroughly undrinkable; blindness and death. You might be thinking of ethanol, which can also be used as a fuel.”

      I think it’s a pretty safe bet that he WAS thinking of ethanol, considering that he said, “the invisible flame is one reason why they now mix in a small amount of gasoline to the ETHANOL fuel used now” (emphasis mine).

  6. Hydrogen also burns clear. The urban legend that may or may not be true is NASA keeps bristle brooms on hand to wave in potential areas of hydrogen fires. If the broom burns, then there’s a fire.

    1. I was told the bristle broom legend by my rocket science professor college. It made sense at the time, but watching this video I have to wonder why the people’s clothing and hair don’t burst into (visible) flame, but a bristle broom in a hydrogen fire does. The flame temperatures of both types of fires are certainly high enough — perhaps the alcohol keeps oxygen away from the hair and clothing as it evaporates, while the bristle brooms get oxygen because they’re being stuck into a cloud of burning hydrogen at the hydrogen/air interface (as I understand it, burning hydrogen clouds in a room tend to float up to the ceiling).

      At any rate, whether or not the bristle broom legend was ever true, the brooms have been obsoleted by UV detectors for hydrogen fires. At least, that’s what we used in the labs where I’ve worked….

      1. “I have to wonder why the people’s clothing and hair don’t burst into (visible) flame, but a bristle broom in a hydrogen fire does.”

        In the video the suits they were wearing were flame retardant. Also broom bristles (mostly cellulose) are much better fuel than hair (mostly protein) which tends to singe rather than flame up. Also alcohol fires don’t always set the thing they are burning on–on fire. You can burn a few drops on your desk or in the palm of your hand (don’t try this) without particularly damaging either. As the video states, the main danger is in inhaling the flames.

      2. My Dad was an EE who worked on the Titan II for about 30 years. He told me about them using straw brooms on the gantry. Apparently the protocol was that you were required to wave the broom in front of you any time you traversed any catwalk around a fueled vehicle. If the broom burst into flame, you knew you’d found a hydrogen fire before it found you. Hydrogen burns almost exclusively in the infrared.

  7. Invisible Flames is about the scariest thing I’ve heard in a while. And this is on a day where our new governor doesn’t believe in global warming.

  8. I wonder why they don’t include traces of an organometallic compound to make the fires visible, maybe sodium acetate or some sort of strontium compound?

  9. Its invisible flame makes methanol the preferred solvent for making colored flames–you don’t have to overwhelm its natural color.

    Invisible Flames sounds like a good name for a band.

    This link:
    talks about and has a picture of the ‘broom test’ in action. It also talks about the use of IR imaging (which is standard equipment for those fire departments which can afford it because of its utility in searching through dense smoke) for visualizing alcohol fires.

    Also related: a long time ago I read about a face mask for race car drivers that had a low melting point plastic (like polyethylene) that would fuse and block the airflow if the driver tried to inhale hot gasses or flame: not breathing for a few minutes is way better for you than burning your airway or lungs. But I was unable to confirm this when I looked just now.

    1. It also talks about the use of IR imaging

      I was going to ask why they wouldn’t just use thermal imaging these days, too. This footage is obviously older, but it shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive any more to outfit the racetrack fire crew with IR imaging gear.

  10. To hell with sodium, use roach powder (boric acid), get green flame.
    Have done this for several halloweens.

    Pour HEET (methanol for cars) into bowl. Dust with roach powder. Light. Instant green flame. Cost < $5

  11. Motorcycle Speedway bike are fueled by methanol alone and, given the fact that these bikes have no breaks and do 0~60 mph in 3-sec’s, fires are always a concern.

    In the 2010 Season, the Costa Mesa, CA track had 3 minor fires, however, also keep in mind that due to the higher compression achieved with methanol, engines due run cooler that gasoline.

    Beats the old days when speedway bikes we fueled with methanol and a little nitro for additional power (and a 4 foot flame out of the exhaust).

  12. adding $_additive to methanol causes whatever additive it is to fall out when the methanol burns. If it’s an organometallic then it lines the cylinder, abrades it, and screws up the specs. If it’s organic then it lines the cylinder and eats at the seals and screws up the specs. If it’s a salt it lines the cylinder, corrodes it, and screws up the specs. Gasoline is a well-known quantity as far as performance affecting, and requires very small amounts to provide bright colour light to a fire.

    It is /actually/ possible to see methanol fires, you just do not see light – you see the heat waves / optical distortions caused by density differences, which is how these crew members were fighting these methanol fires.

  13. Some race vehicles use methanol, others use ethanol.
    We can all be glad they no longer use “whatever,” which used to be the standard for Formula 1. Certain teams would use up the world’s supply of high-performance, high-toxicity chemicals and the fueling crew had to wear full-body hazmat suits.

  14. I remember watching that race as a lad. My family only ever watched three sporting events a year: Indy, the Daytona 500, and the Kentucky Derby. We all picked a car (or horse) and bet a buck. Mears was always my choice, my mom was an Andretti fan, and my old man was nicknamed “A.J.” at work, so he was always a Foyt man. IIRC, my sister picked Tom Sneva that year, and I seem to remember the two of us laughing hysterically at the antics of “my guys” on TV, while my mother sternly informed us that they weren’t dancing out of mirth, but were actually in agony.

  15. The newer racing/fire suits are printed with a dye that bleaches out at about 400 degrees, if you are looking at a driver, and his logos go white as you watch he’s on fire. The suits also contain a anti- fire chemical that causes red flame and prohibits (for a short time) combustion of the material.

    there is a great demo of the founder of Simpson setting himself on fire for 45 seconds in a simpson suit…..

  16. Very minor factoid,l speaking as someone who’s done a bit of paying with alcohol and matches in the past: the reason the guys on fire are flapping around like chickens is that the alcohol flame is kind of slow, and not real violent. You can leave it behind if you move fast enough. They’re trying to shake themselves loose from it, and probably eventually will.

  17. As the wise Uncle Remus once said:

    “Youk’n hide de fier, but w’at you gwine do wid de smoke?”

  18. I have a fear of MeOH fires. I’m a lab rat on an ‘oil rig’ and one of my other roles when on board is a as a firefighter (we’re 150km from the nearest land and dialling 999 or 112 is laughable). We keep bags of potassium chloride near the methanol tanks (methanol is used as an anitifreeze/inhibitor for gas hydrates). The idea is that if we are so far up sh1t creek and the methanol tank is on fire then the handy bag of K-salt will burn purple, thus indicating where he fire is…eep.

  19. Methanol’s safer than gasoline: both are safer than ethanol.

    Yeah, ethanol. Newly-fashionable biofuel. I mean, c’mon, it’s even safe to drink!

    Here’s a link from a firefighters’ website:

    Short version: water doesn’t work, and the foam in the fire truck probably won’t either – needs a special additive – and the flame’s invisible.

  20. It may be hard to fight a fire you can’t see, but nothing’s worse than an itch you can never scratch.

  21. OMG, I remember watching that race… It just totally freaked my Dad and I out watching those poor men burning; We were both shouting at the TV “Get THAT guy, get that guy!!” from our high in the sky vantage point it was easy to admonish the poor folks on the ground.
    It wasn’t until later when I calmed down that I realized that they were deafened by the roar of engines from the race taking place around them, and having practically everyone (not just the people burning) screaming… Pure chaos.
    Bravo to the courage and tenacity of all involved that no one was killed.

  22. I liked the narration – I’m not a big fan of most narration these days (I do like the original How It’s Made narrator but not the replacement), and these older guys did it right!

  23. To Anon and TooGoodToCheck:
    Well methanol is often byproduct when home distilled alcohol is involved. It is product of dry distillation of wood. It is used as dissolvent. It causes blindness and death. Even the vapour from methanol is pretty toxic so it must be used in properly ventilated environment. I don’t see how can anyone think that methanol is safer than ethanol (the alcohol you drink).

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