By Chris Capps 3/28/11
Currently the best known means of fighting fires and extinguishing them in small numbers is to launch water or foam at them and rob them of their fuel supply. But what if you were in a place where shooting water and foam weren't a possibility? The question has plagued insurance companies weighing the cost of deterrent and the cost of the fires themselves for years. And now a system developed by scientists at Harvard University uses a similar principle to sculpt and actually extinguish flames. The new technology could one day be used by firefighters to extinguish fires around the world.
Firefighters currently have to depend on water to apply to the fuel source of flames. The water, as the theory goes, robs the flames of the necessary elements for them to continue burning. And as a result, these flames are extinguished. But backpacks containing generators that fire electrical beams at flames could one day extinguish them without the use of water. Wikus van de Merwe has been using electricity to not only sculpt flames around in different shapes, but also to extinguish them. The electrical field charges the soot and makes the fire more unstable in areas where it is being fired. This has the result of extinguishing the flames if deployed in a powerful burst.
But in addition to electrical backpacks being incredibly expensive and unnecessarily technical, the technology could in this current model be dangerous to people as well. Electricity is, after-all an extremely dangerous thing. And if electricity is powerful enough to extinguish flame, it may be powerful enough to kill us. Did we mention the technology was being funded by DARPA?
But if placed in certain areas, the extinguishers could prove extremely helpful. In an aircraft with an interior fire in a place difficult for impromptu firefighters to reach, but also in an area where foam and water would be impacting precious internal components, the electrical field could be installed ahead of time to emit a pulse that suppressed the flames and put them out. After a few lives saved using this method, they may one day become mandatory as little boxes – sentinels that assure us our equipment will not overheat and result in dangerous explosions. Another interesting question would be if the fields themselves acted as an ignition source for things like fuel. One of the problems with fighting fuel fires currently is that water would inevitably contaminate the fuels which would be a problem in vehicles needing that fuel to get them to safety. If the system in its current or some future generation were able to extinguish flames from fuel fires without further igniting the fuel, it may be used in fuel tanks as well.
And in some distant future we may see firefighters using only electricity to extinguish flames, driving massive trucks with fire hoses that launch great streams of electricity instead of water. Of course before that happened, we would have to develop a means to protect the occupants of the building as well from the electricity which could completely destroy a human body. Wikus van de Merwe demonstrated the dangers after exploding a prawn with the energy beam (against his better wishes).