Why would you throw a fire extinguisher?

Great Balls (and Bottles) of Firefighting

We began tossing around throwable fire extinguishers, then called fire grenades, in the late 19th century, chiefly during the period from 1870-1910. Most consisted of glass bulbs that homeowners could chuck into a fire or mount in metal brackets (a fire's heat would melt the rack's solder, causing the grenade to smash on the floor). Fire grenades usually contained carbon tetrachloride, which dilutes flammable liquid fuels and forms a heavy gas blanket to helps block out oxygen. However, because carbon tetrachloride is poisonous and can produce the toxic chemical compound phosgene during a fire, such devices fell out of favor as fire extinguishers improved [sources: Burke; The Gas Age; Kovel and Kovel].

But some ideas die hard. Today, a Thailand company produces the Elide Fire Extinguishing Ball, a 5.8-inch (14.7-centimeter), 3.3-pound (1.5-kilogram) sphere that customers throw or roll into fire. After 3-10 seconds of exposure to flame, the ball explodes loudly (120 decibels) and scatters extinguishing agents, including FUREX 770, a dry chemical containing mono ammonium phosphate. The ball can put out small Class A and some small Class B fires over an 86-108 square-foot (8-10 square-meter) indoor area, and its loud bang can serve as an alarm [sources: Caldic Deutschland; Elide; YG Yangın Güvenliği].

Malaysia's Linnovate Technology offers the SOTERIA Throwable Fire Extinguisher, a 1.3-pound (600-gram) plastic resin bottle that withstands everyday pressures but shatters when dropped from 3 feet (1 meter), releasing organic and inorganic salts. These react with fire to generate carbon dioxide and ammonia gas, which disperse and extinguish the fire, as well as foam, which suffocates the fuel. It retails for $69.99 (at the time of publication) and douses Class A and B fires [sources: Lim; Linnovate].

Bonex, a Malaysian company headquartered in Japan, divides its throwable products according to fire fuel type. Its $85 SAT119 (named for the Japanese fire rescue number) resembles SOTERIA in form but handles only Class A fires. According to one store, it contains 16.9 fluid ounces (500 milliliters) of ammonium phosphate dibasic (a soluble ammonium phosphate salt used as an environmentally friendly flame retardant), and ammonium bicarbonate (a white powder found in baking powders and fire extinguishers). When exposed to fire, it emits carbon dioxide and ammonia gas. Bonex also makes FR911 FLAMEOUT for handling Class A, B and C fires [sources: Bonex; Japan Trend Shop; NJDHSS; Santa Cruz Biotechnology].

All three products contain nontoxic, eco-friendly chemicals and boast a five-year shelf life, according to manufacturers [sources: Bonex; Elide]. Regarding their legality in the Unites States, Linnovate CEO Leon Lim said, "SOTERIA Throwable has been exported to many countries and has always been classified as a non-dangerous good."

Author's Note: How do throwable fire extinguishers work?

I don't think I'm alone in feeling a certain anxiety when it comes to handling a fire extinguisher in an emergency, so I can definitely see the appeal of making the process as simple as possible. Of course, you still need to know what you're doing, which involves a bit of reading up but, hey, you read HowStuffWorks, right? You like learning how, um, stuff works.

One of the keys to fighting fires safely is to understand that you only have a small window of time in which to bring some sort of extinguishing device to bear. After that, matters are probably going to get far enough out of hand that you should really just get out and call 911. So, if grabbing a bottle or ball is faster than the fire extinguisher mantra of "Pull, Aim, Squeeze and Sweep," then maybe there's something to popping for a throwable or two.

Me, I'm going to wait until the fire authorities and chemists weigh in on them (the ones I contacted for this article either did not get back to me or declined to comment).

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