Scientists zap raging fire with electric power

A curtain of flame obstructs firefighters trying to rescue a family trapped inside a burning house. 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.

The new discovery could underpin a new genre of firefighting devices, including sprinkler systems that suppress fires not with water, but with zaps of electric current, without irreparably damaging the contents of a home, business.

Ludovico Cademartiri and colleagues at Harvard University, picked up on a 200-year-old observation that electricity 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 led the research, according to a statement of the American Chemical Society.

“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.”

Researchers 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. 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 the use of portable flame-tamer devices, which perhaps could be hand-carried or fit into a backpack

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