Kari Byron

Jamie as Mythbuster!

by Jamie Sanford on June 3, 2010

Not the actual Jamie who is a Mythbuster, me, busting the Mythbusters!

I am a huge Mythbusters fan, and just the other day, my husband and I left a lighter in the car because we had seen Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage leave lighters in hot cars and they didn’t explode or anything.

Mythbusters! (Photo from Discovery.com)

From MythbustersResults.com:

A lighter can explode on a car dashboard.

BUSTED

The lighter was put in a toaster oven to simulate the maximum temperature that the interior of a car can reach, around 180 degrees Fahrenheit. There was no reaction for several hours, and the lighter finally exploded when the MythBusters ramped the temperature up to over 350 degrees Fahrenheit, well above any temperature that can be expected in the interior of a car.

Today, I left a lighter sitting in my car, in the cupholder in the center console.  I went into work around 8:55 and came out around 5:30, and large and small chunks of exploded lighter all over the 2 front seats!


As you can see, pieces were scattered on the passenger seat, the top was near the pedals, and there were 2 sizable pieces on the dashboard.  There are still little bits of blue plastic in my car.

Here are all of the pieces laid out on the hood–


I think I’ve found a bit of a flaw in those results from the show (I’m sure I’m not the first), and I think I know why, based on other knowledge about pressure that I’ve obtained from (you guessed it) watching Mythbusters.   In the car on the way home, I thought about the recent episode where Kari Byron, Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara were testing the myth that a gas tank can turn into a rocket.

Thanks again to MythbustersResults.com:

If the propane tank on a barbecue grill is exposed to fire, it can rupture explosively and propel itself 150 feet (46 m) into the air.

PLAUSIBLE

The Build Team constructed a shed to California building code, placed a grill (with a full tank) inside, and stocked it with wood and charcoal to ensure a long and hot fire. When they ignited the shed, the pressure relief valve on the propane tank eventually opened and vented the gas. For all subsequent trials, Grant disabled the valve on every tank. The second trial involved a tank placed directly on a propane-fired burner; this time, the tank exploded and threw shrapnel up to 300 feet (91 m) in all directions. In a third test, the team bored a hole partway through the tank’s base to simulate an old tank that had partially rusted through, and saw it peel itself apart from the bottom up. Reasoning that the tank might need to have some vapor space in order to launch, they repeated the test with a partially filled tank and got it to fly 60 feet (18 m) into the air.

The team declared the myth plausible at this point, then continued working in an attempt to get a higher flight. Tory built a launch guide and set up a 9 mm pistol to fire upward into the base of the tank as it sat on the burner, creating an instant nozzle. With the fire going and the tank about to burst, the team triggered the pistol and the resulting blast sent the tank into a high, spinning trajectory – enough to convince them that a propane tank could become a rocket under the right conditions.

It occurred to me that I don’t remember Adam and Jamie testing lighters that weren’t new, and therefore not completely full of lighter fluid.  Less propane in the gas tank myth resulted in more space for pressure buildup and so the resulting explosion was more eventful.  I am going out on a limb and thinking that the same thing happened in the car today with my 50% or less full plastic lighter.  The pressure buildup was greater and so there was actually a chance for a real explosion of said lighter!

I am married to a scientist, and so naturally we discussed the other possible factors at play, wear and tear on the lighter, design, manufacturing of this single item, etc.  Of course it could have been flawed in a way that made the situation much more likely.  Even with that in mind, my geekiness was in full effect today when I found evidence of an explosion in my car.

(Edit – Also wanted to clarify that I listened to the Mythbusters and didn’t purposely try this at home.)

Do you watch Mythbusters? Isn’t it amazing? Do you have any wacky explosion stories?

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