Five ways dragons can breathe fire

One thing we know about dragons is that they tend to have the kind of breath that makes a furnace in a steel-works look cool. Which is fine and dandy – but how does that actually work? I’ve got a few theories.

  1. Public domain.Hotter on the inside. If we assume dragons to be endothermic, they’re going to have a lot of waste heat. What better way to cool down than literally breathing some of it out? A lot of animals cool down that way. Maybe dragons have taken it to the next level. How would that work, physically and biologically? No idea. Asbestos-lined throat, maybe?
  2. Hypergolic reaction. Maybe dragons have glands in their mouths that secrete – oh, I don’t know, nitrogen tetroxide on one side and unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine on the other. Mix the two together and breathe out. Whoom! Don’t hiccup, OK? Of course there’s the tiny problem of hypergolic compounds being viciously corrosive and deeply toxic, quite apart from how they might be produced biologically. Oh, did I mention hydrazine is also a powerful carcinogen? The real worry in dragons is that the fire might not be quite hot enough for that magic knight-vapourising effect. But hey, details…*
  3. hypergolic_fuel_for_messenger
    Hydrazine safety precautions, fuelling the MESSENGER probe to Mercury in 2004. Could dragons breathe it? Ummm… NASA, public domain.

    Magic. Dragons just breathe fire. Get used to it.

  4. Internal boiler. Maybe the dragon is on fire internally and can kind of belch that out every so often. Fine and dandy, but what happens when some errant knight chucks a bucket of water straight down their kisser? Boiler explosion, that’s what. Nasty.
  5. Primary school teacher. All the primary school teachers I had were dragons that breathed fire. Maybe dragons are actually primary school teachers? That would explain a lot.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

*All this aside, hypergolics are a common rocket fuel and are, in fact, used in real dragons. Space-X’s ‘Draco’ and ‘Super-Draco’ motors, as fitted to their Dragon capsule, use it. Just saying.

12 thoughts on “Five ways dragons can breathe fire

    1. You betcha… and in a few years the question ‘are there Dragons on Mars’ will have to be answered with a resounding ‘Yes!’. Thanks to Space-X and not magic, but still very cool.


  1. Figuring out the science behind the paranormal is a great way of learning about science. When I looked for an answer to explain why we can see vampires but not their reflections I discovered a few things about the science of optics and how light ‘happens,’ eg photons, reflectivity etc.

    Dragon fire. An internal heat source, such as that which builds up in stored paper or wood shavings. When it reaches its natural ignition point it can be directed along a separate channel evolved to be fire retardent. But what is the fuel source? Digested organic matter in the gut? Can the dragon store it like a cow storing food before rechewing it? Can the dragon induce a rise in temperature by altering its internal air pressure to make the material heat up more quickly or even instantaneously?

    It would take a lot of rare evolutionary steps to achieve all that, which might explain why there are so few of them.

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    1. It’s very cool how discoveries happen, serendipitously, along the way while thinking of these things, isn’t it. One gem I discovered about hypergolics – which I knew about, but re-checked for this post – was the Soviet name for one of their rocket fuel combinations. “Devil’s venom”. Kind of sums up the nastiness of the chemistry. I must say that the concept of dragons having four stomachs and chewing cud, like cows, is kind of neat!


  2. I’ve always held to the idea of dragons secreting two different chemicals. Mix them together and you get fire. And if chemical is carcinogenic, well did you know sharks never get cancer? Yup. Maybe dragons don’t either. Loved this idea. Great post!

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