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We all know that the air we breathe contains oxygen, which is necessary for life. But under certain conditions, oxygen can be harmful and even deadly. Inertion is the process of replacing air, which contains oxygen, with an inert gas like nitrogen. Inertion can be used for many things, from making car tires safer to keeping potato chips fresh.

In fact, removing oxygen with inertion can prevent fires. Oxygen is one part of the Fire Triangle, along with heat and fuel. Without oxygen, fires cannot burn. It’s no surprise, then, that inertion is an important tool for fighting fires.

The technique is called gaseous fire suppression, or inert gas suppression, and it works by replacing the oxygen required for a fire to burn with an inert gas, like nitrogen, which is not flammable. An inert gas suppression system quickly pumps nitrogen through small pipes into a room where there is a fire, smothering the fire almost instantly by removing oxygen. It’s a safe, natural way to quickly extinguish a fire.

Many art galleries, museums, and libraries rely on inertion to protect their valuable collections, which often contain highly flammable materials like brittle books and oil-based paint. Inert gas suppression systems can keep precious objects with historical value safe. The same technique is used by the military, in medical facilities, and by businesses to protect electronics and other equipment, ensuring that valuable materials won’t be destroyed in a fire.

And inertion isn’t just for museums and the military. The same technique that stops fires in military installations and museums can also be used to protect your car tires. The same process that fuels fires, known as oxidation, can destroy the inside of your car tires if they are filled with regular compressed air. Oxygen breaks down the rubber inside of tires, and it can even harm chrome finishes and rust the steel belts in the tires.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to filling tires with harmful oxygen––drivers can use nitrogen, an inert gas, to help protect their tires, just like inert gas suppression systems protect great works of art.

Post Author: Genevieve Carlton Ph.D.

Ph.D. - Research Historian from Northwestern University. A writer and researcher she has published pieces for Ranker, Stacker and Atlas Obscura. She has published a nonfiction history book with the University of Chicago Press and a number of scholarly articles with top journals.

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