New 'magic wand' device claims to snuff out fires with electricity

Wand shoots electric beams to cut through fires

By FireRescue1 Staff

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The next 'Harry Potter' movie is still a few months away, but a new scientific discovery proposes to arm firefighters with a new way to fight fires: via a magic wand (check out an image of the technology).

The device, which was unveiled this week at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, fights fire not with water, but with zaps of electric current - all without soaking and irreparably damaging the contents of a home.

The researchers demonstrated the device by connecting a 600-watt amplifier (about the same power as a high-end car stereo) to a wand that directed the electrical current into a beam, then shooting beams of electricity against an open flame about a foot high. From a distance, the wand was able to snuff out the flame entirely over and over again.

"Controlling fires is an enormously difficult challenge," said Ludovico Cademartiri, a Harvard physicist who reported on the research. "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."

While the demonstration used a 600-watt amplifier, Cademartiri believes that a power source with only a tenth of this wattage could have similar flame-suppressing effect, enabling firefighters to use portable flame-tamer devices, which perhaps could be hand-carried or fit into a backpack.

But how does it work? Cademartiri acknowledged that the phenomenon is complex with several effects occurring simultaneously. Among these effects, it appears that carbon particles, or soot, generated in the flame are key for its response to electric fields. Soot particles can easily become charged. The charged particles respond to the electric field, affecting the stability of flames, he said.

Cademartiri envisions that futuristic electrical devices based on the phenomenon could be fixed on the ceilings of buildings or ships, similar to stationary water sprinklers now in use. Alternatively, firefighters might carry the flame-tamer in the form of a backpack and distribute the electricity to fires using a handheld wand. Such a device could be used, for instance, to make a path for firefighters to enter a fire or create an escape path for people to exit, he said.

The system shows particular promise for fighting fires in enclosed quarters, such as armored trucks, planes, and submarines. Large forest fires, which spread over much larger areas, are not as suitable for the technique, he noted.

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