Welcome to You Ask Andy

Max Yoder, age 8, of Kingfisher, Okla., for his question:

Is swamp gas dangerous?

Swamp gas sometimes mixes with the air above bogs and swampy marshes. It may give you a spooky scare, but out there in the wide outdoors it is not very dangerous. But sometimes it gets trapped in a stuffy mine. Then it can blow up in a dangerous explosion.
A gassy material likes room, lots of room. It is made of separate atoms and molecules that are too small for our eyes to see. They dash around at high speeds to keep apart, but they bash into traffic accidents with each other many times every second. Oxygen gas is made of speeding molecules of oxygen and nitrogen gas is speeding atoms of nitrogen. Swamp gas also is made of fast flying molecules. Each one has a carbon atom linked to four atoms of hydrogen.
The oxygen in the air spreads out to fill every secret corner of a room, so do nitrogen and the other gases of the air. Swamp gas also spreads out to fill all the space it can. A gas can be squeezed into a smaller space. This makes it warmer. But swamp gas tries to burst out from its prison. If it gets trapped underground in a stuffy mine, a small spark makes it explode with a disastrous bang.
The explosion is caused by speeding molecules rushing out from their cramped prison to find more room. They spread out so fast that their force shatters walls and brings tons of rock tumbling down. Scientists call it methane gas. Others call it swamp gas or marsh gas or mine gas. It forms when plants rot in still water where there is not much air. This is why it rises from marshy swamp lands.
Gases will burn but most of them must be very hot. Methane is a flammable gas that burns with a coolish, colorless flame. It often glows with a ghostly light above the marshes. Its dancing glimmering light is the spooky sight called will o' the wisp. But outdoors, with plenty of room to spread, the swamp gas is not dangerous.
Chemists find plenty of work for such a peppy gas to do. Natural gas is mostly methane. We tame it to burn in our stoves, and its flame is much hotter than other fuel gases. Chemists even tame its booming explosions and make them useful. They take away the air, heat it and let the exploding bang create acetylene. This stuff gives the hot flame for a metal melting welding torch. Many useful products are made from careful mixtures of methane and other chemicals.
Experts handle it with care and ordinary folk should not experiment or handle it at all. The smells from some of its chemical mixtures may be suffocating or deadly poisonous. Some of them are very eager to blaze or explode. Some are safe cleaning fluids and some are used to make paint. One chemical made with fiery methane is so tame that it can be squirted from a fire extinguisher to blanket a blaze.


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