200-Year-Old Technology Fights Fires With Electricity


Photo by AMagill via Flickr Creative Commons

Firefighters are trained with many different tactics for fighting a fire. Though the one we're most familiar with is the giant water hose, it turns out that an electrified stick could do the trick just as easily for some blazes. It's essentially a backpack with a wand attached, which shoots a beam of electricity into the flame, which can help snuff it out, or at least make fighting the flames easier. Not only that, but it could save a whole lot of water. According to a press release, water could be old news when it comes to fighting fires. Scientists reporting at the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), including Ludovico Cademartiri, Ph.D., and his colleagues in the group of George M. Whitesides, Ph.D., at Harvard University, "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."

The concept of using electricity to twist and turn flames, and even put them out, is about 200 years old, but very little research has been done on the technology during that time. Until now, that is. According to the researchers, a study was done in which a powerful 600-watt amplifier was connected to a wand, which could beams of electricity into flames reaching one foot or higher. The flames were immediately snuffed out over and over again.


Photo by The National Guard via Flickr Creative Commons

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."

Taking advantage of this technology would help firefighters get to people trapped within homes or buildings, or even control where the blaze is burning, or how it is moving. It could even mean firefighters could put out flames remotely, using this technology without even needing to be within the danger zone of a blaze. And to make this extra appealing, it could mean a significant reduction on the use of water and environmentally damaging chemicals and foams used in fighting flames.

The researchers note that the technology is best used in tight spaces, like planes and submarines, which means it could take the place of fire extinguishers or emergency sprinklers.

Hat tip to Gizmodo for the heads up.

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Tags: Concepts & Prototypes | Conservation | Drinking Water | Water Crisis

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