Argon is one of the more unusual elements in our day-to-day lives. This is because it’s a gas at room temperature, so most of us don’t have Argon laying around in our homes. However, you may come into contact with Argon at work or at school. If you do, you might be wondering whether Argon is flammable or not and whether it’s a fire risk or health risk to you?
Argon isn’t flammable. Argon is an unreactive, noble gas. This means it won’t burn easily, as it must react with oxygen (or another oxidizer) to catch fire.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you can keep Argon around a fire with no risks at all. Let’s take a look.
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Also read: What Makes Something Flammable?
What Is Argon?
Argon is one of the “noble” gases and it’s in the same period as Helium, Xenon, Radon, etc.
While it may not trip off of your tongue, Argon is, in fact, the third most common gas in the Earth’s atmosphere (it makes up just under 1% of the air) and incredibly it’s twice as common as water vapor is.
In addition to being found in the air, there’s also plenty of Argon trapped in the Earth’s crust though it only makes up about 0.00015% of the crust by volume.
The name “Argon” is from Greek, and it means “lazy” or “inactive” which is very appropriate as we’ll soon see.
You don’t find much pure Argon just laying around as it has to be extracted from the air and then purified and because it’s gas, it then needs storing in pressurized canisters.
It is used most commonly in welding (where it can be used as a “shielding” gas) and in the lab (where it lends a distinctive blue-green light to gas lasers).
Is Argon Flammable?
Thankfully, Argon isn’t flammable as it’s all around us, all the time. If it burned easily, the Earth would be a very different place with spontaneous explosions and flames constantly happening everywhere.
The definition of flammable means that to be considered flammable, a substance should be a liquid with a flashpoint at or below 199.4 degrees Fahrenheit or 93 degrees Celsius. (OSHA)
Argon is a gas, but this could be considered a liquid for this definition, however, what’s undisputed is that Argon won’t burn in the air or even pure oxygen.
Thus, there is no way for Argon to be considered flammable, and, in fact, that’s why it is used for shielding in welding, it just won’t burn, no matter how hot things get.
Also read: Is Nitrogen/Liquid Nitrogen Flammable?
Why Isn’t Argon Flammable?
This isn’t an accident and Argon isn’t flammable due to its electrochemistry.
During the burning process, oxidation takes place.
That means electrons leave the oxygen atoms and complete the electronic shell of whatever element the oxygen is combining with.
In the case of Argon, it already has a full electronic shell, there are 8 electrons in its outer shell and there is no space for any more electrons.
This property means that, in most cases, Argon has to be forced to react with any other element and there are very few known Argon compounds.
Most Argon compounds are currently theoretical and assumed to exist in space or have been observed using sophisticated detection techniques.
Can It Explode?
This might sound like a ridiculous question, after all, we’ve already determined that Argon doesn’t react with very much, so why would it explode?
Well, it does explode and that’s not because Argon is reactive but rather because Argon is a gas.
When you keep gas in a canister and expose it to heat, the gas expands but the canister, which is made of a stronger material does not expand at the same rate.
So, after a period of time, the gas has expanded so much that the canister is no longer big enough to contain the gas.
At this point, the canister breaks and explodes.
This means that while you have nothing to fear from Argon burning, you can’t store Argon canisters near open flames or in places where there are fire risks.
Does It Melt?
Argon is a solid only at the very coldest of temperatures and yes, it does melt at a temperature of -301.81 degrees Fahrenheit or -189.34 degrees Celsius.
You are unlikely to encounter solid or liquid Argon outside of specialist laboratory environments.
Does It Boil?
In a similar vein, Argon also boils at a very low temperature of -302.526 degrees Fahrenheit and -185.848 degrees Celsius.
The melting and boiling points are close enough together that Argon might sublimate (e.g. go from solid to gas) rather than melt and then boil, without very careful temperature control.
Why Does Argon Change Your Voice?
Argon gas is from the same family of gases as helium is from and as everyone knows, if you breathe in Helium, it makes your voice go all squeaky like Donald Duck though a bit higher pitched.
But does Argon have a similar effect? Yes, but it’s not identical.
When you inhale Helium, the change in your voice is commonly believed to be the effect the gas has on your vocal cords.
This is wrong for two reasons.
Firstly, you don’t have vocal cords, you have a vocal fold.
And secondly, helium has no real effect on the vocal fold.
Instead, the helium molecules in your system are much faster, because they’re much lighter than the oxygen molecules you normally breathe in.
This helps sound to travel faster through your vocal system (up to 3 times faster, depending on how pure your Helium is) and it is this increased speed that changes the pitch of your voice.
Argon, however, is much heavier than Helium and the air that you normally breathe in.
So, while it does change your pitch, it lowers it rather than boosting it, you could expect to sound rather like a bullfrog rather than Donald Duck.
But, we don’t advise you to do this, and here’s why.
Is It A Dangerous Gas?
Argon is not a dangerous gas in normal circumstances.
This should be fairly obvious.
If 1% of the earth’s air is Argon if it was dangerous, we’d have to have evolved some sort of defense against it and we haven’t.
That doesn’t mean, though, that you can go and huff Argon and that’s because it’s heavier than air and if you take a big lungful of Argon, you’re going to find it very difficult to expel it again.
When you huff down some Helium, it’s lighter than air, so you breathe it in, then you breathe it right out again.
In the case of Argon, you breathe it in and you get lungs full of Argon that won’t move and you could easily suffocate.
We’re reliably informed that the best way to deal with this, if you are brave enough to do it in the first place, is to perform a handstand that allows the Argon to drain from your lungs.
We’d recommend that you don’t do it.
What Is Argon Poisoning?
Argon is not poisonous but if you fill your lungs with Argon (and this won’t always be deliberate, you could, for example, find yourself trapped in a workshop with leaking Argon cylinders) it’s going to feel like you’ve been poisoned.
And while most welders treat Argon with barely a second thought, fatalities have occurred from leaking Argon, include a 22-year-old dying from Argon asphyxiation.
Argon poisoning is, essentially, the same thing as drowning or being strangled or cut off from oxygen, and the symptoms are immediate and include dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, salivating, low levels of mental acuity, and eventually the loss of consciousness and then death.
To reduce the risks of Argon poisoning, it’s important to work in a well-ventilated space, to monitor the oxygen level (this should be at 19.5% or more), use a fresh-air welding helmet, and, if in any doubt, have someone keep watch over you.
If you believe that you are suffering from Argon poisoning, the first thing to do is get into the fresh air, and then try to angle your body (consider a handstand if you can) to allow the Argon to flow out of your lungs.
It is unlikely that you will be permanently damaged by Argon poisoning if you act before passing out. But you need to exercise caution.