Smoke is a collection of airborne solid and liquid particulates and gases emitted when a material undergoes combustion or pyrolysis, together with the quantity of air that is entrained or otherwise mixed into the mass. It is commonly an unwanted by-product of fires (including stoves, candles, internal combustion engines, oil lamps, and fireplaces), but may also be used for pest control (fumigation), communication (smoke signals), defensive and offensive capabilities in the military (smoke screen), cooking, or smoking (tobacco, cannabis, etc.). It is used in rituals where incense, sage, or resin is burned to produce a smell for spiritual or magical purposes. It can be a flavoring agent and preservative for various foodstuffs.
Pyrolysis of burning material, especially incomplete combustion or smoldering without adequate oxygen supply, also results in production of a large amount of hydrocarbons, both aliphatic (methane, ethane, ethylene, acetylene) and aromatic (benzene and its derivates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; e.g. benzo[a]pyrene, studied as a carcinogen, or retene), terpenes. Heterocyclic compounds may be also present. Heavier hydrocarbons may condense as tar; smoke with significant tar content is yellow to brown. Presence of such smoke, soot, and/or brown oily deposits during a fire indicates a possible hazardous situation, as the atmosphere may be saturated with combustible pyrolysis products with concentration above the upper flammability limit, and sudden inrush of air can cause flashover or backdraft.
Smoke emissions may contain characteristic trace elements. Vanadium is present in emissions from oil fired power plants and refineries; oil plants also emit some nickel. Coal combustion produces emissions containing aluminium, arsenic, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, mercury, selenium, and uranium.
Some components of smoke are characteristic of the combustion source. Guaiacol and its derivatives are products of pyrolysis of lignin and are characteristic of wood smoke; other markers are syringol and derivates, and other methoxy phenols. Retene, a product of pyrolysis of conifer trees, is an indicator of forest fires. Levoglucosan is a pyrolysis product of cellulose. Hardwood vs softwood smokes differ in the ratio of guaiacols/syringols. Markers for vehicle exhaust include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, hopanes, steranes, and specific nitroarenes (e.g. 1-nitropyrene). The ratio of hopanes and steranes to elemental carbon can be used to distinguish between emissions of gasoline and diesel engines.
Polymers are a significant source of smoke. Aromatic side groups, e.g. in polystyrene, enhance generation of smoke. Aromatic groups integrated in the polymer backbone produce less smoke, likely due to significant charring. Aliphatic polymers tend to generate the least smoke, and are non-self-extinguishing. However presence of additives can significantly increase smoke formation. Phosphorus-based and halogen-based flame retardants decrease production of smoke. Higher degree of cross-linking between the polymer chains has such effect too.
The naked eye detects particle sizes greater than 7 +m (micrometres). Visible particles emitted from a fire are referred to as smoke. Invisible particles are generally referred to as gas or fumes. This is best illustrated when toasting bread in a toaster. As the bread heats up, the products of combustion increase in size. The fumes initially produced are invisible but become visible if the toast is burnt.
An ionization chamber type smoke detector is technically a product of combustion detector, not a smoke detector. Ionization chamber type smoke detectors detect particles of combustion that are invisible to the naked eye. This explains why they may frequently false alarm from the fumes emitted from the red-hot heating elements of a toaster, before the presence of visible smoke, yet they may fail to activate in the early, low-heat smoldering stage of a fire.
Smoke from a typical house fire contains hundreds of different chemicals and fumes. As a result, the damage caused by the smoke can often exceed that caused by the actual heat of the fire. In addition to the physical damage caused by the smoke of a fire – which manifests itself in the form of stains – is the often even harder to eliminate problem of a smoky odor. Just as there are contractors that specialize in rebuilding/repairing homes that have been damaged by fire and smoke, fabric restoration companies specialize in restoring fabrics that have been damaged in a fire.
Many compounds of smoke from fires are highly toxic and/or irritating. The most dangerous is carbon monoxide leading to carbon monoxide poisoning, sometimes with the additive effects of hydrogen cyanide and phosgene. Smoke inhalation can therefore quickly lead to incapacitation and loss of consciousness. Sulfur oxides, hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride in contact with moisture form sulfuric, hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid, which are corrosive to both lungs and materials. When asleep the nose does not sense smoke nor does the brain, but the body will wake up if the lungs become enveloped in smoke and the brain will be stimulated and the person will be awoken. This does not work if the person is incapacitated or under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.
Smoke can obscure visibility, impeding occupant exiting from fire areas. In fact, the poor visibility due to the smoke that was in the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire in Worcester, Massachusetts was the reason why the trapped rescue firefighters couldn't evacuate the building in time. Because of the striking similarity that each floor shared, the dense smoke caused the firefighters to become disoriented.
Smoke contains a wide variety of chemicals, many of them aggressive in nature. Examples are hydrochloric acid and hydrobromic acid, produced from halogen-containing plastics and fire retardants, hydrofluoric acid released by pyrolysis of fluorocarbon fire suppression agents, sulfuric acid from burning of sulfur-containing materials, nitric acid from high-temperature fires where nitrous oxide gets formed, phosphoric acid and antimony compounds from P and Sb based fire retardants, and many others. Such corrosion is not significant for structural materials, but delicate structures, especially microelectronics, are strongly affected. Corrosion of circuit board traces, penetration of aggressive chemicals through the casings of parts, and other effects can cause an immediate or gradual deterioration of parameters or even premature (and often delayed, as the corrosion can progress over long time) failure of equipment subjected to smoke. Many smoke components are also electrically conductive; deposition of a conductive layer on the circuits can cause crosstalks and other deteriorations of the operating parameters or even cause short circuits and total failures. Electrical contacts can be affected by corrosion of surfaces, and by deposition of soot and other conductive particles or nonconductive layers on or across the contacts. Deposited particles may adversely affect the performance of optoelectronics by absorbing or scattering the light beams.