Chemistry » Chemical Reactions and Stoichiometry » Reaction Stoichiometry

Airbags and Chemical Reactions


Airbags (see image below) are a safety feature provided in most automobiles since the 1990s. The effective operation of an airbag requires that it be rapidly inflated with an appropriate amount (volume) of gas when the vehicle is involved in a collision.


Airbags deploy upon impact to minimize serious injuries to passengers. Image credit: Jon Seidman

This requirement is satisfied in many automotive airbag systems through use of explosive chemical reactions, one common choice being the decomposition of sodium azide, NaN3. When sensors in the vehicle detect a collision, an electrical current is passed through a carefully measured amount of NaN3 to initiate its decomposition:

\(\mathrm{2NaN_3}(s) \longrightarrow \mathrm{3N_2}(g) + \mathrm{2Na}(s)\)

This reaction is very rapid, generating gaseous nitrogen that can deploy and fully inflate a typical airbag in a fraction of a second (~0.03–0.1 s). Among many engineering considerations, the amount of sodium azide used must be appropriate for generating enough nitrogen gas to fully inflate the airbag and ensure its proper function. For example, a small mass (~100 g) of NaN3 will generate approximately 50 L of N2.

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