Wood Does Not Melt
Date: June 2004
Why does wood NOT melt?
To melt something would imply that it can be taken between a liquid and
solid state by heating and cooling. Wood, like other plant material, is
very complex and takes its form from its cellular structure. In its natural
state, wood is roughly 1/4 to 2/3 water by weight, so it consists of large
amounts of liquid at room temperature to begin with. Wood is the source of
many liquid products, such as latex rubber, turpentine, and maple syrup, to
name a very few. It is possible to burn wood and condense the smoke into a
liquid (which is actually how "liquid smoke" food seasoning is made), but
the physical structure of the wood is destroyed in the process and the
resulting material cannot be reconstituted back into the original source.
Wood does not melt when the temperature is raised because it decomposes
chemically first. That is, the chemical bonds that hold it together come
apart first. Also, when wood is heated in air, it (or its components) start
Materials like water, metal, or rock are simple structures that do not go
through any large changes when they are heated. These materials usually
melt. When metals are heated, he atoms usually reorder themselves into a
new arrangement at higher temperatures, but then the new arrangement melts.
Materials like wood, paper, concrete, are not simple, and some of the
chemical bonds essentially fall apart or reorganize. In concrete, the
calcium hydroxide decomposes, and the concrete loses strength.
Many plastic or polymer materials will melt before they decompose. Some
decompose before they melt. Rocks, on the other hand, will often melt.
Wood is cellulose, which is a larger, longer molecule whose approximate formula is
The OH's in this formula link to each other (bridging from molecule to molecule)
more strongly than almost any other "functional group".
These "hydrogen bonds" are weaker than the covalent bonds within each molecule, but
not by a huge factor.
When there are more hydrogen bonds in each molecule, it gets difficult to ever free
each molecule enough to move around as they do in liquids.
Listing members of this family from smallest to largest:
n=1: methanol, melting point = -94 degreesC
n=2: ethylene glycol (anti-freeze), mp= -12C
n=3: glycerin, mp= 20 degC
n=6: glucose sugar, mp=90-150C
n=12: sucrose sugar, mp=~185C (and it tries to turn brown while you're melting
n=18+: starch mp>200C, decomposes
n>20: cellulose (cotton, wood, paper), mp>250C, blackens, chars, and/or burns
You can see that as the molecules get larger, the melting points keep getting
But their threshold temperatures for reaction with oxygen in air are all pretty
As is their temperature to suffer molecular breakdown in airless places ( i.e.,
wood-> carbon(charcoal) + water(steam) ).
So you can see that at some point in the sequence, the melting points will be higher
"burning points", and you will never get to see melting behavior. It just
This is also related to a term: "cross-linking".
Suppose you have a pile of slimy worms. Like long-chain molecules, the pile behaves
somewhat like a liquid.
If you glue each worm to two neighbors, what you have is longer worms. A thicker
But if you glue each worm to three different neighbors, then it is all one big knot
or web or lattice.
And the permanent sense of shape inherent to a solid is born.
In any "cross-linked" substance, these glue-spots are made of molecular bonds,
just like the rest of the molecule.
So it is no longer possible to separate the solid bulk cleanly into separate
Some irreversible chemical breakdown would have to occur first.
Several un-meltable "thermosetting" plastics are in this category.
Cellulose can be a cross-linked substance.
One might think of cellulose as the carbon polymer (plastic) most closely related to
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Update: June 2012