Fuel

About Fuels Commonly Used By Fire Performers

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White Gas

Coleman: White Gas

White Gas (aka camp fuel, benzene, mineral spirits, paint thinner)

We’re not sure where the term “white” came from in this common fuel name, but it appears to be a form of gasoline without added lead, MTBE, detergents and perhaps missing some of the petrol based octane boosters.  What we do know is that it’s mostly made of very short chain hydrocarbons and small rings structures.  These small molecules  generally have a lot of energy to push away from the liquid state and enter the air as a free vapor (scientifically, this is a “low” flash point fuel, because it forms vapors at a very low temperature.  Fire departments call anything with a flash point below room temp a class I fuel).  From a puddle of liquid or even soaked into a wick, white gas will evaporate (or vaporize) in just a few minutes.  The advantage to this is that it lights quickly, burns readily, doesn’t usually blow out while performing, but can be quickly starved of oxygen. Since it’s producing vapors even while sitting on ice, it’s popular for ground burns, fleshing, vapor tricks and a couple other tricks that can’t be done with most other fuels.  However, because it’s easy to transfer a little liquid from a wick to your clothing/body, it’s also the easiest fuel to accidentally light yourself on fire.  For safety, white gas should never be left open in enclosed spaces, it needs adequate ventilation to prevent fumes from building to explosive potential.  The most common sources of this fuel are the various camp fuels produced by Crown, Coleman’s, and some generic titles.  In a pinch, paint stores sell VM&P Naphtha, mineral spirits and paint thinner that have similar properties, but also other ingredients making the fuel respond differently.  white gas should never be used for fire breathing.

Gasoline

Similar to white gas with a slightly higher flash point and some added ingredients to make cars function better and hopefully cleaner, gasoline is among the most dangerous fuels you can use and simply mentioning it will lose you credit with authorities.  Even though white gas has a lower flash point and is pretty much always producing vapors, gasoline has a flash point right at room temp (65-75f/20c) but it’s molecules are a little bit bigger, so they enter the air, but don’t move around as easily.  This can create ‘vapor tentacles’ that can be ignited almost a mile away and flashback to the source.  Great care should be taken to keep gasoline vapor secure whenever you’re not dipping in it.
Kerosene

Kerosene

Kerosene (lighter fluid, AV Gas, jet fuel, and many more)

Kerosene is a problematic fuel to describe because the term covers such a broad variety of fuels.  Technically, Kero is a class II petrol fuel with a flash point between low room temp and maximum human survivability (70-140f/20-60c).  It’s a little harder to ignite than white gas, can create vapor tentacles like gasoline, rarely is the most purified product on the shelf, and most versions don’t work for vapor tricks and ground burns.  Types of kerosene include gasoline, zippo lighter fluid, charcoal lighter fluid, home heating fuel, crystal K, jet fuel, etc.  For basic spinning on wicks, it’s quicker to light than lamp oil, but gives a nice burn time.  Technically 50-50 mixes of white gas and lamp oil are kerosene.  Sometimes, this fuel is the easiest to defend because of the wide variety of other uses for it, somethings, not.  Best to check with your local fire department first, rather than wait to have them say no.

Ultra Pure: Lamp Oil

Ultra Pure: Lamp Oil

Lamp Oil (paraffin, UPLO, tiki fuel)

The various class III fuels are not generally used for much other than small oil lamps or home heaters.  We’ve included paraffin here, though the term may apply to kerosene or even white gas depending on your location.  Lamp oil tends to be long chain hydrocarbons of about 12-14 carbons long.  Anything longer, and the substance becomes a grease at room temp.  This makes for a very immobile fuel, it has a very high flash point (200f+/70c+), it ignites very slowly (because the liquid has to be heated up to it’s flash point before it produces vapors), burns the longest of the common fuels and is the favorite of fire breathers.  You cannot perform vapor trick with this fuel, but it’s worth noting that no fuel is “safe” at any temperature.  Just drop a feather in your lamp oil and it’ll be producing vapors as fast as white gas.  For very long burns, people favor mixing lamp oil for a version of kerosene, or they fully soak a tool with lamp oil and spritz some white gas on it to get it going quick.  Breathers prefer this fuel because it won’t flash back as readily, and certain products are incredibly consistent.

s_l_x_denatured_alcohol

       Alcohols

Methanol  (wood alcohol, denaturant, the blue lady)
Methanol produces very blue flames, but is the smallest polar solvent known.  As such, it is the best fuel for making colored flames.  Methanol is extremely hazardous as even the fumes can enter the body and have intoxicating effects.  Also, high exposure levels of methanol can degrade the nervous system with blindness being the first symptom.  Methanol is the most common “denaturing” agent in denatured alcohol (mostly ethanol, with enough methanol to make it not ready for human consumption).  It lights very quickly, can be used for fleshing and vapor tricks in high proof, but can be a little hard to find.  Do NOT use methanol orally, do not ingest, and only perform with it in highly ventilated areas.

Ethanol (grain alcohol, ethyl alcohol, Saturday night lubricant)

Ethanol is utterly ubiquitous in western culture.  It can be found in shopping centers, bars, liquor stores, hardware stores, beauty supply, some places have it in vending machines.  Most of the sources of ethanol are intended for human consumption and are not the main ingredient.  Potable alcohols have a “proof” system that’s double the actual percentage of alcohol.  So 151 proof is about 75% and 80 proof is only 40%.  The higher the proof the less water and other impurities, the better the burn and the stronger the flame.  Because ethanol will suck the water right out of the air, it legally cannot be listed as higher than 199 proof, or 99%.  Ethanol can be used for most fire arts in high proof, as it is similar, but weaker than white gas.  It’s commonly used for fleshing, can be used for vapor tricks and spun with special wicks.  However, because it’s a human intoxicant, great care should be used in avoiding inhalation of the vapors, or direct contact with internal surfaces.  If ethanol gets into your blood it will immediately begin to degrade your judgement, even before legal levels of intoxication.  Typically, this judgement impairment snowballs as more alcohol is consumed.  Ethanol is also acceptable for making colored flames, though it takes longer to dissolve the salts than methanol.

Isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol, rubbing alcohol)

Isopropanol is a surfactant (reduces surface tension), a rubefacient (draws blood to the surface of the skin), is the primary ingredient in mouthwash, body rub, after shave, and is commonly found in drug stores.  Once used as a sedative, it can make people drowsy, and it’s a common medical ingredient for cleaning hospitals and used in hand sanitizer.  Unlike ethanol and methanol, isopropanol will not impair your judgement, however the vapors can make people woozy until they get accustomed to it, so make sure you practice thoroughly before attempting a performance.  It can be found typically in 70%, 90% and occasionally in 99%.  The first two are very commonly used for fleshing, and the last is a nearly ideal replacement for white gas, with just a slightly shorter burn time.

Other Polar Solvents

All of the alcohols, plus MEK, Ethyl Acetate, butyl acetate, and many others are “polar” molecules, Take isopropanol for example, it has a hydrocarbon backbone that is identical to propane, but in the middle carbon, the OH group indicative of alcohols is substituted for one of the hydrogens.  That’s right, isopropanol and propane are a single atom of oxygen different, but what a difference.  This magnetically “polar” molecule hangs on to similar molecules much easier than non polar molecules.  This means that smaller molecules will stay liquid longer, they still light quickly, but they have a generally higher flash point than their non-polar cousins.  And they react better with other materials.  A polar solvent is absolutely required to dissolve metal salts for making colored flames.  Generally, the flame size is a little smaller because of smaller molecules, and the pre-oxygenation tends to mean they burn a little cooler and a lot cleaner than petrol fuels.  Ethyl acetate was dubbed “bio-white” because it’s one of the smallest molecules to come out of the bio-deisel process, it functions almost identically to white gas and burns much cleaner.  However, the downside to most polar solvents is that they usually have a noticeable and very strong smell.  Isopropyl smells like a hospital, E-A smells like a nail salon, and ethanol smells like a bar.  The larger the molecule, the more persistent and strong the smell tends to be.  Also, polar solvents are often used in the manufacture of drugs.  Illegal makers are often tracked by these harder to find and more regulated substances.  No polar solvent should ever be used regularly for internal use like breathing, or in enclosed spaces.

        Other Fuels

Powders (lycopodium, non-dairy creamer, powdered sugar)
Organic powders have come into vogue for fire breathing, and certain flame effects.    Powders are considered the safest breathing fuel, though, like anything they may have some drawbacks.  Certainly all measures should be used to avoid inhalation. Special tools are used with lycopodium to create short burst flame effects from torches, staves, and swords.  Copious room inside the tool is needed for these effects.  Luckily organic powders can be simply swept up after the show.

Steel Wool/Wood

This is a variant seldom used variant of liquid fuels.  00 grade wool is ignited usually with a 9v battery and spun inside special cages.  Hot sparks shoot from the cages up to about 20’ and can ignite anything they land on, so great care should be taken.  Wood cages perform similarly though tend to burn longer and throw off fewer sparks per second than wool.  It’s worth mentioning that both of these practices can take the user out of the standard ‘open flame performance’ legality and codes.  Steel Wool could be considered Pyro in certain jurisdictions.
Article by Tedward – nafaa.org
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MariyaK

Mariya K is the creator of Fire Arts Magazine as well as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator at the gooddesigner.net. She is ultimately the Creative Director at Fire Arts Magazine