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During the combustion of hydrocarbons, there is a difference between the amounts of carbon or hydrogen that results in incomplete or complete combustion of the material.

My question is, besides from an insufficient amount of oxygen, what can cause incomplete combustion?

What are the physical or chemical properties of the hydrocarbon responsible for incomplete combustion, such as the hydrogen to carbon ratio (mass, volume, number of atoms, etc.) or the saturation.

Please keep the reply suitable for a student studying high school to early university chemistry.

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    $\begingroup$ I think insufficient air is only reason for incomplete combustion. $\endgroup$ – Freddy Aug 26 '15 at 6:41
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According to the Iowa State University page Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: Checking for Complete Combustion (AEN-175) suggest the following mechanisms that cause incomplete combustion:

  • Insufficient mixing of air and fuel.
  • Insufficient air supply to the flame.
  • Insufficient time to burn.
  • Cooling of the flame temperature before combustion is complete.

The main notion is the lack of air to cause complete combustion (either through lack of supply, mixing or time for combustion).

However, it should be noted that, practically speaking, according to the ChemWiki page Burning Alkanes, the size of the hydrocarbon has an affect in 'normal' conditions:

Provided the combustion is complete, all the hydrocarbons will burn with a blue flame. However, combustion tends to be less complete as the number of carbon atoms in the molecules rises. That means that the bigger the hydrocarbon, the more likely you are to get a yellow, smoky flame.

The reason being (according to ChemWiki) is:

If the liquid is not very volatile, only those molecules on the surface can react with the oxygen. Bigger molecules have greater Van der Waals attractions which makes it more difficult for them to break away from their neighbors and turn to a gas.

So, the larger the hydrocarbon, the less likely it would vaporise sufficiently, thus less chance of the optimal mixing of air and fuel, resulting in incomplete combustion.

However, provide the right conditions with sufficient supply of air and optimal hydrocarbon-air mixing ratio, it is still possible to cause complete combustion, in the general formula (for many hydrocarbons):

$$\ce{C_{x}H_{y} +O2 ->H2O + CO2}$$

A quite comprehensive resource explaining each of the factors is the University of Tulsa chapter Fuels and Combustion.

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a particular flame temperature is recommend for each types of sample, if your sample required higher temperature to vaporize and given temperature is not the required one, incomplete combustion may occur

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Chemistry.SE! Take the tour to get familiar with this site. Mathematical expressions and equations can be formatted using $\LaTeX$ syntax. For more information in general have a look at the help center. Could you add an example for your explanation, I have a hard time understanding it. $\endgroup$ – Martin - マーチン Oct 1 '15 at 3:05

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