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In a wood fire, the visible flames are not due to combustion of the wood itself, but rather of the gases released by its pyrolysis, whereas the flame-less burning of a solid, called smouldering, is the combustion of the solid residue (char or charcoal) left behind by pyrolysis.Thus, the pyrolysis of common materials like wood, plastic, and clothing is extremely important for fire safety and firefighting. It should not be confused with hydrothermal reactions such as hydrothermal gasification, hydrothermal liquidation, and hydrothermal carbonization, which occur in aqueous environments because the temperatures and reaction pathways differ, with ionic reactions favored in aqueous reactions and radical reactions favored in the absence of water.As these consist mostly of dry materials, the process of pyrolysis is not limited to the outermost layers but extends throughout the materials.In all these cases, pyrolysis creates or releases many of the substances that contribute to the flavor, color, and biological properties of the final product.When heated in the presence of water, carbohydrates and proteins suffer gradual hydrolysis rather than pyrolysis.Indeed, for most foods, pyrolysis is usually confined to the outer layers of food, and begins only after those layers have dried out.
People have used pyrolysis for turning wood into charcoal on an industrial scale since ancient times.
In normal cooking, the main food components that undergo pyrolysis are carbohydrates (including sugars, starch, and fibre) and proteins.
(See: Maillard reaction.) Pyrolysis of fats requires a much higher temperature, and, since it produces toxic and flammable products (such as acrolein), it is, in general, avoided in normal cooking.
The word is coined from the Greek-derived elements pyro "fire" and lysis "separating".
Pyrolysis is a type of thermolysis, and is most commonly observed in organic materials exposed to high temperatures.