Taming the flame: Electrical wave ‘blaster’ could provide new way to extinguish fires

A curtain of flame halts firefighters trying to rescue a family inside a burning home. One with a special backpack steps to the front, points a wand at the flame, and shoots a beam of electricity that opens a path through the flame for the others to pass and lead the family to safety.

Scientists today described a discovery that could underpin a new genre of fire-fighting devices, including sprinkler systems that suppress fires not with water, but with zaps of electric current, without soaking and irreparably damaging the contents of a home, business, or other structure. Reporting at the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Ludovico Cademartiri, Ph.D., and his colleagues in the group of George M. Whitesides, Ph.D., at Harvard University, picked up on a 200-year-old observation that electricity can affect the shape of flames, making flames bend, twist, turn, flicker, and even snuffing them out. However, precious little research had been done over the years on the phenomenon.

“Controlling fires is an enormously difficult challenge,” said Cademartiri, who reported on the research. “Our research has shown that by applying large electric fields we can suppress flames very rapidly. We’re very excited about the results of this relatively unexplored area of research.”

Firefighters currently use water, foam, powder and other substances to extinguish flames. The new technology could allow them to put out fires remotely — without delivering material to the flame — and suppress fires from a distance. The technology could also save water and avoid the use of fire-fighting materials that could potentially harm the environment, the scientists suggest.

In the new study, they connected a powerful electrical amplifier to a wand-like probe and used the device to shoot beams of electricity at an open flame more than a foot high. Almost instantly, the flame was snuffed out. Much to their fascination, it worked time and again.

The device consisted of a 600-watt amplifier, or about the same power as a high-end car stereo system. However, Cademartiri believes that a power source with only a tenth of this wattage could have similar flame-suppressing effect. That could be a boon to firefighters, since it would enable use of portable flame-tamer devices, which perhaps could be hand-carried or fit into a backpack.

Learn how it works here  Taming the flame

 

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3 Responses to Taming the flame: Electrical wave ‘blaster’ could provide new way to extinguish fires

  1. alfy says:

    Years ago I saw a marvellous demonstration on TV. Two identical large trays of benzene or other petroleum products were set on fire. The first firefighter stepped up and after about 30 seconds of vigorous spraying with a foam canister the fire was out. His buddy took the other blazing tray. He pointed his gadget at the flames and went “Boof”. the fire was out in a half second.

    I thought, “This is it. The future of firefighting.” Never heard about this again.

    The principle was that the second canister contained water under very high pressure. When the button was pressed a pressure wave of an extremely fine mist covered the flames. The physics was that the flames were cooled very rapidly and air was also excluded.

    Now it may be that the fire services are using this gadget all the time and I am just too ill-informed to realise it, but every time I see images of firemen hanging off an ordinary water hoses, or planes futilely dropping water containers on forest fires, I wonder why they are not using the very high pressure water-mist method.

    What is the history of the technique. Was it too expensive? Was it useless against a really big fire? Did it put fires out so quickly that all firemen would be out of work in a fortnight? Did it cause sterility in all who used the device? All of these possibilities could have been overcome with further research.

    Jim, help me. Can we discover what became of a piece of very simple but quite revolutionary technology?

  2. Deskarati says:

    I had a good check around t’internet, all I could find was that the high pressure water-mist method is used quite extensively as a replacement for sprinkler type systems inside buildings. Perhaps the problem is producing the pressure in a mobile situation.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thank you for your efforts so far. The whole point of the TV clip was that it showed a fireman actively putting out a fire with it. If it works in a passive situation, ie a sprinkler, why not an active situation? The kit your man was using on TV was very small and mobile much the size of the foam canister.

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