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

Mar 28, 2011

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 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."

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 — 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.

But how does it work? Cademartiri acknowledged that the phenomenon is complex with several effects occurring simultaneously. Among these effects, it appears that carbon particles, or soot, generated in the flame are key for its response to electric fields. Soot particles can easily become charged. The charged particles respond to the electric field, affecting the stability of flames, he said.

"Combustion is first and foremost a chemical reaction – arguably one of the most important – but it's been somewhat neglected by most of the chemical community," said Cademartiri. "We're trying to get a more complete picture of this very complex interaction."

Cademartiri envisions that futuristic electrical devices based on the phenomenon could be fixed on the ceilings of buildings or ships, similar to stationary water sprinklers now in use. Alternatively, firefighters might carry the flame-tamer in the form of a backpack and distribute the electricity to fires using a handheld wand. Such a device could be used, for instance, to make a path for firefighters to enter a or create an escape path for people to exit, he said.

The system shows particular promise for fighting fires in enclosed quarters, such as armored trucks, planes, and submarines. Large forest fires, which spread over much larger areas, are not as suitable for the technique, he noted.

Cademartiri also reported how he and his colleagues found that electrical waves can control the heat and distribution of flames. As a result, the technology could potentially improve the efficiency of a wide variety of technologies that involve controlled combustion, including automobile engines, power plants, and welding and cutting torches, he said.

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TAz00
not rated yet Mar 28, 2011
Correct me if i'm wrong.

Flames are plasma yes? and plasma's can be controlled with magnetic and electric fields because they can carry a charge, exactly what they're ascribing to the sot particles.
ClevorTrever
5 / 5 (3) Mar 28, 2011
Flames are plasma. Loudspeakers which exploit this have been around for ages.

There's no such thing as an electrical wave. Are you talking about an electric field, an electromagnetic wave or a current?

How does this thing work? If it's electrostatic it doesn't need a 600 Watt amplifier, it just needs to generate a high voltage to create a strong electric field. That doesn't take a lot of energy - force is not the same as work.

What are beams of electricity?

It's not "wattage", it's "power" which is measured in watts.

This is what you get when you hire humanities graduates to write about science. Dismal.
Zander
5 / 5 (1) Mar 28, 2011
i would not like to be in a room fitted with zappers when it detects a fire.
Husky
5 / 5 (3) Mar 28, 2011
i would think flames are mostly gas and not plasma, not hot and dense like the sun to completely seperate the electrons from the protons i would have to go for the electrostatic soot that blows away taking the hot gascolumn flow with it and MAYBE also inducing some vortices with enough enegy to induce some localized plasma from the gas that would also be subjected to the electrostatic force. They should try this further on substances burning with clean nearly sootless flames, like alcohol and non carbon burning flames like thermite and with flames with different soot particle sizes, to fully wrap their minds about the dynamics of the soot, or that other further fetched effects like diamagnetism used to trap/move neutral atoms in a penning trap also maybe at work here, anyways its a nice new angle to combat fire that is just in time to receive a boost from the increasing power densities of small batteries/supercondensators to make it a portable workable application
Eikka
not rated yet Mar 28, 2011

How does this thing work? If it's electrostatic it doesn't need a 600 Watt amplifier, it just needs to generate a high voltage to create a strong electric field. That doesn't take a lot of energy - force is not the same as work.


I suppose it works by stripping or inserting electrons into the flame, thus driving the forces between the particles to a state where they cannot support combustion.

Like for example, if you have a carbon atom and an oxygen atom in a plasma, and you remove electrons, they can't form bonds. They simply bounce off of each other because they're both positive in charge and can't find an electron to make the covalent bonds between the oxygen and the carbon atoms.

Or, if you insert more electrons, you could perhaps "saturate" the ions so that they don't bond easily because they already have enough electrons. This interference would slow the chemical reactions down and the flame wouldn't sustain itself.

Both require a constant current, thus, power.
Moebius
5 / 5 (1) Mar 28, 2011
Alternatively, firefighters might carry the flame-tamer in the form of a backpack and distribute the electricity to fires using a handheld wand. Such a device could be used, for instance, to make a path for firefighters to enter a fire or create an escape path for people to exit, he said.


Instead of a wand making a path for firefighters wouldn't it make more sense to create suits for them that repel the flames? Might work for race car drivers too.
Kingsix
1.5 / 5 (4) Mar 28, 2011
My only question is what is the magic words that harry potter uses make this happen with his wand? Phosphoratus Mallaeus?
mike_saunders
2 / 5 (3) Mar 28, 2011
It would also be interesting to see if this process might have some effect on supressing explosives....
el_gramador
not rated yet Mar 28, 2011
Alternatively, firefighters might carry the flame-tamer in the form of a backpack and distribute the electricity to fires using a handheld wand. Such a device could be used, for instance, to make a path for firefighters to enter a fire or create an escape path for people to exit, he said.
= problem would be length of charge time to avoid the flame from reaching the person.

A simplified version, so long as the generating device isn't broken could just send out a small field over the object it needs to extinguish. Why not just use a emp grenade at that point then?

Instead of a wand making a path for firefighters wouldn't it make more sense to create suits for them that repel the flames? Might work for race car drivers too.

HannesAlfven
2.6 / 5 (5) Mar 28, 2011
Fire is a plasma, guys. Get over it already ...

http://www.plasma...lame.jpg

... And if I can make a suggestion, for those of you who didn't already realize this -- including the author of this article, apparently -- you seriously need to learn how the universe's fundamental state of matter behaves in the laboratory. Anybody who's talking about the universe without knowing how plasmas behave in the lab is wasting everybody's time. It is 99%+ of what we see with our telescopes, and for the record, a plasma will favor EM forces over gravity with less than 1% ionization.
harryhill
1 / 5 (1) Mar 28, 2011
If, as stated, that this invention could take the place of overhead sprinklers and really suppress fires...that would stop many fires. I don't think the Firefighter Union would go for that.
dirk_bruere
not rated yet Mar 28, 2011
What does "shooting electricity" mean?
What I *assume* it means is some kind of cold plasma wind