Firefighters have long known about fire tornadoes, or fire whirls. These deadly phenomena can occur when fire is carried upwards by clashing air fronts and atmospheric conditions. Fire whirls burn much hotter and faster than traditional fire, making them extra dangerous in the event of wildfires or chemical fires.
Now, fire researchers at the University of Maryland have discovered a way to potentially harness fire whirls in order to create cleaner, more efficient fire that could improve a variety of industrial or scientific applications. According to a press release issued by the University of Maryland, the new type of fire is being called a “blue whirl” due to the fire’s color and shape.
The researchers have published their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to their research, these new blue whirls might be a new technique for combatting emissions from combustion engines or cleaning oil and chemical spills:
Whereas fire whirls are known for their intense and disastrous threat to life and surrounding environments, their swirl properties and thus higher combustion efficiency imply an unexploited potential for highly efficient, low-emission combustion […] Understanding and control of the blue whirl and its predecessor, the fire whirl, will suggest new ways for fuel-spill remediation, reduced-pollution combustion, and fluid mechanics research.
The blue color of these fire whirls comes from the oxygen found in the reaction. The yellow color of most fire tornadoes is due to the heat radiating from soot particles which do not fully combust due to a lack of oxygen. By carefully controlling the supply and flow of oxygen, researchers can create perfectly clean burning blue fire whirls which combust nearly 100% of their fuel supplies.
Michael Gollner, assistant professor of fire protection engineering at the University of Maryland and co-author of the paper, believes that despite their dangerous nature, the power of these blue whirls could be harnessed for the betterment of mankind and our environment. According to Gollner, part of the potential application lies in the efficiency of these fire tornadoes:
Fire whirls are more efficient than other forms of combustion because they produce drastically increased heating to the surface of fuels, allowing them to burn faster and more completely. In our experiments over water, we’ve seen how the circulation fire whirls generate also helps to pull in fuels. If we can achieve a state akin to the blue whirl at larger scale, we can further reduce airborne emissions for a much cleaner means of spill cleanup.
Prometheus smiles down on us, readers. That is, until we burn the entire surface of the Earth in a rogue mega-whirl incident. Let’s just hope this scientific discovery doesn’t get weaponized and actually improves the Earth for once.