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Fires could be extinguished using beams of electricity


March 28, 2011

Scientists have developed a device that uses beams of electricity to extinguish flames(Photo: Sylvain Pedneault)

Scientists have developed a device that uses beams of electricity to extinguish flames
(Photo: Sylvain Pedneault)

It's certainly an established fact that electricity can cause fires, but today a group of Harvard scientists presented their research on the use of electricity for fighting fires. In a presentation at the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, Dr. Ludovico Cademartiri told of how they used a unique device to shoot beams of electricity at an open flame over one foot tall. Almost immediately, he said, the flame was extinguished. On a larger scale, such a system would minimize the amount of water that needed to be sprayed into burning buildings, both saving water and limiting water damage to those buildings.

Apparently, it has been known for over 200 years that electricity affects fire – it can cause flames to change in character, or even stop burning altogether. According to Cademartiri, a postdoctoral fellow in the group of Prof. George M. Whitesides at Harvard University, what hasn't been looked into much is the science behind the relationship. It turns out that soot particles within flames can easily become charged, and therefore can cause flames to lose stability when the local electrical fields are altered.

The Harvard device consists of a 600-watt amplifier hooked up to a wand-like probe, which is what delivers the electrical beams. The researchers believe that a much lower-powered amplifier should deliver similar results, which could allow the system to worn as a backpack, by firefighters. It could also be mounted on ceilings, like current sprinkler systems, or be remotely-controlled.

Cademartiri believes the technology would work best for fires in confined spaces, such as aboard submarines, but not so much for wide-open areas like forests. As it was additionally found that electrical waves can affect the heat and distribution of flames, he also thinks their discovery could be used to boost the efficiency of devices that involve controlled combustion, such as engines, power plants, and cutting and welding torches.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

WHO YA GONNA CALL?..............

Denis Klanac

Don\'t cross the Streams!

Sam Petre

These electric beams sound intriguing. Nikola Tesla springs to mind. Presumably the beam is not microwave in nature. It sounds more like an electrostatic field, which would be a lot safer. I wonder why the Harvard device consisted of 600 W amplifier. When I devise something, I usually start small, and work bigger if necessary, rather than the other way round. It seems strange that this effect has been known to 200 years but nobody has done anything about it until now.


This is all cool and interesting but it seems critical that ALL of the firefighters agree to use EITHER water or electricity to put out the fire. Mixing the two activities seems like a formula for disaster kin to soluble ship hulls.

Rustin Haase

@windykites1-It is my guess that they had it already and adapted it to the use of their project. I do it all the time.

Paul Anthony

Great technology we need to adapt to aricraft for California Forst fires. Get on it Evergreen.

Facebook User

How can charging soot prevent combustion of fuel and gas? I know flame is basically plasma, but do you need AC electric field?

Akemai Olivia
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