Chemistry - Can paper burn without oxygen or air?

Solution 1:

No, the paper will not burn without oxygen being present.

Paper is made primarily of cellulose which is a polymer of glucose.

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If you heat paper in a vacuum the cellulose simply decomposes to $\ce{H2O}$, $\ce{CO2}$, $\ce{CO}$ and carbon. As the paper decomposes it will "char" or turn brown to black as the cellulose polymer degrades. Here is a link to an abstract describing the process in more detail.

Solution 2:

It will decompose into other compounds. This is how charcloth is made. It is called dry distillation or pyrolysis.

Solution 3:

The title poses, "Can paper burn without oxygen or air?" A little sneaky pedantry here from an old-school chemist - No Oxygen present, no air either, nor any mention of a vacuum. This allows us the presence of other strong oxidisers such as Chlorine and other halogens which will support combustion, which is what most people mean by "burn". As an aside, I well remember a chemistry practical demonstration where my teacher plunged a spoon of Phosphorus into a cylinder of pure chlorine to see a pale green flame spontaneusly appear, accompanied by copious white smoke (Phoshorus pentachloride) being emitted. So the answer is yes, but only in very uncommon enviroments, but which are found in the chemical industry where the Fire Service need to be aware of potential fire hazards.

Solution 4:

If you put a paper inside an oven vacuum packed and go beyond $250~\mathrm{^\circ C}$, will it burn? There's no oxidizer. If not, what will happen?

Probably not.

As other answers point out. However, paper is a complex and varied material and some varieties called paper could contain trace quantities of materials that upon heating, could produce oxidizing species. So a hard, firm "No" may not be true in all cases.

Can paper burn without oxygen or air?


You can watch iron, sulfur, coal, and cotton spontaneously ignite when exposed to fluorine gas in the video Fluorine - Periodic Table of Videos

I'd say cotton would be a reasonable proxy for paper here. Not only do these materials burn in fluorine, combustion is spontaneous!

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Incidentally you can look up individual elements on Periodic Table of Videos at