Hexane isn’t a chemical that most of us recognize in our everyday lives. Yet, it’s hugely important to the production of many things as it is a cheap, easy to produce, mostly safe solvent, that doesn’t react with a lot of other chemicals. In fact, hexane and more, specifically, hexanes are used throughout various industries and appear in many household products. But is this something to worry about and is hexane a fire risk to us?
N-hexane, the hexane we are most likely to contact, is very flammable and has a flashpoint of -9 degrees Fahrenheit or -22.77 degrees Celsius. This is lower than the maximum flashpoint to be considered flammable and thus “hexane” can catch fire very easily.
To better understand the fire and other hazards that are associated with hexane, we need to take a closer look at what hexane actually is, as well as where you are likely to find it. Take a look.
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Also read: What Makes Something Flammable?
What Is Hexane?
Hexane is a hydrocarbon that is a major component of gasoline.
It is colorless, odorless, and boils at a fairly high temperature of 156 degrees Fahrenheit (or 69 degrees Celsius), which makes it stable at room temperature and this is another reason for its popularity in industry.
It is worth noting that in addition to n-hexane, you may also find a chemical called “hexanes” being used as an industrial solvent.
This is a mixture of two forms of methyl-pentane, some other trace alkanes as well as about 60% hexane.
This is cheaper to make than pure hexane and does an adequate job as a solvent in most instances.
Thus, we don’t tend to find pure hexane in use very often, except in processes that require a single isomer in the solvent.
The chemical formula of Hexane is C6H14 and it forms a straight chain of carbon atoms surrounded by hydrogen atoms.
Also read: Is Benzene Flammable?
Is Hexane Flammable?
Hexane is a highly flammable substance with a flashpoint around -9 degrees Fahrenheit or -22.77 degrees Celsius.
This is far below the 199.4 degrees Fahrenheit (93 degrees Celsius) ceiling for a liquid to be considered flammable.
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It also means that hexane and any related compounds must be carefully stored away from naked flames or potential electrical sparks as the ensuing fire could turn explosive.
Also read: Is Argon Flammable? What You Should Know
Why Is It Flammable?
Hexane is flammable because the two constituent elements, carbon, and hydrogen, are both much happier to react with oxygen (to form water and carbon dioxide) than they are with each other.
This is due to the electrochemical makeup of the elements themselves and oxygen’s strong ability to “oxidize” other elements.
Most of us are aware that oil and gasoline products, especially lighter fractions, are quite flammable (though not all fractions are flammable) and hexane is no exception.
Is It a True Fire Hazard?
Hexane in trace amounts in other compounds, such as the way it is typically found in the home, is not a major fire risk, there’s not enough of it to represent a fire hazard.
However, in industry, hexane is very much a fire hazard, and it should be stored in a well-ventilated space using explosion-proofed lighting and electrical kit and no naked flames or smoking should be allowed nearby.
No compressed air tools should be used in the vicinity and hand tools must also be chosen for their inability to give off sparks.
How Do You Extinguish A Hexane Fire?
If you are ever left to put out a hexane fire, the first things to do are to shut off any ignition sources (e.g. isolate the power) and if possible, prevent further discharge of the hexane itself.
Once you’ve done that, you may use water if you can provide it in flood quantities, but never spray water on to a hexane fire, as with all liquid fires, using water in a spray can move the fire around rather than extinguish it or spread the fire.
If you use a fire extinguisher, they should be foam, dry chemical or CO2 (carbon dioxide) and not water based.
If the spill is of any reasonable size, it must be reported to local health and/or pollution control officials as must any resulting fire.
What Happens When It Is Burned?
Assuming that there is an adequate amount of available oxygen, hexane burns “cleanly” that is the only by-products of a hexane fire are water and carbon dioxide.
Of course, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas so that doesn’t mean burning hexane is good for the environment, but it does mean that the byproducts are non-toxic.
However, it is important to note that a hexane fire in an enclosed space could see the carbon dioxide push out any oxygen, and thus, if you have to tackle a hexane fire, you should always look to see the space is well-ventilated before you begin, there’s no shame in waiting for the fire department if it’s not.
What Contains Hexane?
Mainly, hexane is used as a solvent and that means in most household products that it has come into contact with it only exists in trace amounts that are not worth worrying about their impact on flammability.
However, spray adhesives, craft paints, contact cement and some stain removers may contain larger quantities of hexane due to using hexane as a solvent for their component parts.
These products should be stored securely away from naked flames, electrical sparks and in well-ventilated areas, just in case.
How To Dispose Of It Safely?
Hexane can be disposed of in two ways.
The first is simple, it can be burned.
Now, we’re not suggesting that you light up a hexane bonfire in your backyard here.
It should be sprayed, by a professional, into a suitable combustion chamber if you intend to burn it off and that means contacting such a professional and paying them to do it.
It may also be disposed of by evaporation, but again, as this presents a fire hazard while the hexane evaporates, it needs to be done by a professional.
Please don’t put hexane near naked flames or electrical sparks at home or in the workplace unless you’re trained to do so, the results could be explosive.
Is Hexane Toxic?
Short-term exposure to hexane is not good for you and it can cause problems similar to intoxication including nausea, headaches, dizziness, and even a “giddy feeling”.
However, it is very important to recognize that long-term hexane exposure, can be highly toxic and can lead to permanent nerve damage in the limbs and extremities.
Is It Bad For The Skin?
Hexane will not irritate the skin directly, but along with inhalation and ingestion, skin contact does cause absorption of hexane in the body.
And long-term skin contact exposure can lead to muscle damage, nerve damage and if you are exposed to other organic solvents this can accelerate this damage.
Is It A Neurotoxin?
Yes, hexane is a neurotoxin.
That is the toxicity of hexane has a direct relationship to the functioning of the body’s nervous system and it can, long-term, induce “peripheral neuropathy” (a symptom also found in diabetics) where feet, legs, arms, and hands tingle and feel numb.
This can also interfere with someone’s ability to properly feel touch, pain, temperatures or even vibrations too.
Hexane In Veggie Burgers?
You may have been told that a vegetarian or vegan diet is super healthy and, overall, this is probably true (though the science is not certain, no matter what you’ve been told), but processed soy, which is typically found in processed vegetarian foods and, particularly, burgers contains hexane.
Now, we don’t think that the occasional veggie burger is going to result in long-term nerve damage, though we note that some of the more strident alternative health sources are suggesting that this could be true.
What we do think is that there’s no need to consume hexane and take any risks at all.
You can eat a well-balanced vegetarian or vegan diet without consuming processed soy burgers.
Which Veggie Burgers?
According to the New York Daily News, reporting on the findings of the non-profit health organization the Cornucopia Institute, soybeans are being dunked in hexane to reduce their fat content (the fat dissolves in the hexane).
Products that are labeled “organic” are not allowed to do this, but if a product is labeled “made with organic ingredients” or in any other way, they may well contain hexane.
Brands that use hexane on soy, according to the report, include Amy’s Kitchen, Boca Burger, Morningstar Farms and Garden Burger (though it’s worth noting that in the case of Boca and Morningstar, they also have products labelled “made with organic soy” that don’t contain hexane).
This is something that might be worth considering before you chow down on your next veggie burger.