Scientists at a conference in Anaheim, California this last weekend unveiled a “discovery” that could underpin a completely new type of fire-fighting device potentially including sprinkler type systems that suppress fires not with water, but with bolts of electrical current.
Reporting at the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Ludovico Cademartiri, Ph.D., and fellow team members of a research group at Harvard University, unveiled research into a 200-year-old observation that electricity can affect the nature of flames, making them bend, twist, flicker, and even snuff them out.
The research has shown that applying large electric fields to a fire using a Harry Potteresk lance can suppress flames very rapidly. In addition to fire sprinklers Firefighters currently use water, foam, powder and other substances to extinguish flames. The new technology could allow fire suppression remotely without the application of chemical suppressants or water which it was suggested also had environmental benefits.
There are a few “could’s” in there as translating the phenomenon from theory into a practical fire fighting tool may not be that easy – it has after all been known of for a couple of centuries. There is no doubt that it works but the scientists seemed rather vague on the why. Even so at the presentation they connected a 600W electrical amplifier to a wand-like probe and used the device to shoot bolts of electricity at an open flame more than a foot high. Almost instantly, the flame was snuffed out and the result was repeated time and again.
But how does it work? Well that’s best left to the scientists and Cademartiri acknowledged that the phenomenon is complex with several effects occurring simultaneously although it appears that carbon particles, or soot, generated in the flame become electrically charged. The charged particles respond to the electric field and are neutralized or blasted away, affecting the stability of flames.
Futuristic electrical devices based on the phenomenon could include devices fixed on the ceilings of buildings or ships, similar to automatic sprinklers now in use. Alternatively, firefighters might carry the flame blaster in the form of a backpack and distribute the electricity to fires using a handheld wand. The system shows particular promise for fighting fires in enclosed quarters, such as armored trucks, planes, and submarines. That would explain why The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (U.S. Department of Defense) part funded the project.
Not clear as to the wider safety implications for men and their machines and it will be interesting to watch developments although I don’t see fire extinguishers or fire sprinklers becoming obsolete any time soon.