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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Science Note: Fighting Fires With Electricity

Air Date: Week of

Researchers have found that electricity can effectively extinguish flames. Living on Earth’s Wynn Tucker reports for this week's Science Note.


GELERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Just ahead - having serious fun determining the fate of the world. But first this note on emerging science from Wynn Tucker.


TUCKER: A single fire hose spews about 250 gallons of water a minute. But the next wave of fire fighting might not use any water. Researchers at Harvard University have found that shots of electric current can put out flames almost instantly. The scientists connected a wand-like device to an amplifier and zapped beams of electricity at an open flame. The fire was extinguished every time.

A flame in the process of being extinguished by an electric field (Credit: Jabulani Barber and Ludovico Cademartiri)

The technology works like this: fires produce charges, like ions, free electrons, and soot. All of these charges can be moved by electric fields. When the researchers apply certain kinds of electric fields to fire, the motion of these charges can destabilize the flame and snuff it out. The electric fields are safe for humans to pass through, and they could be used to clear an escape route for a family trapped in a burning home.

Scientists aren’t sure if this technology will work against large-scale fires, but they envision electrical devices replacing sprinklers on the ceilings of buildings and ships. Waving a wand to put out a fire may sound like magic, but it would save water and keep the contents of a home or business from being soaked beyond repair. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Wynn Tucker.




Read the original report, which was presented at a conference of the American Chemical Society


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