Feature

Fighting fire with... electricity?

In the future, firefighters might douse blazes with a blast of electric current from a super-charged wand. How would that work?

Firefighters of the future might tackle raging flames not with a high-powered hose or foam extinguisher, but with an electric blast from a powerful wand. Here, a look at how it might work:

How do you put out fires using electricity?A group of Harvard scientists discovered that large electrical fields can affect the shape of flames and even put them out completely. The science behind it is complex — and not fully understood — but involves charging soot particles in the flame and affecting their stability. "Shake that stability hard enough," says Clay Dillow at IO9, "and the flame collapses."

Does it work already?Yes. The Harvard researchers connected a 600-watt amplifier to a "wand-like probe" and shot beams of electricity at a small fire. The flames were snuffed out almost instantly, and the experiment worked time and again. The scientists say the technology could be used for small, enclosed blazes, but would not be effective on large forest fires.

So electricity is better than water?Its comparative efficacy hasn't been tested, but electricity is likely to be used as an alternative to, rather than a replacement for, traditional firefighting equipment. Firefighters would theoretically be able to clear a path through a larger fire using the electrical power-wand, or put out a small fire without causing water or foam damage to property. Harvard's researchers suggest it could be used on planes, in submarines, or onboard ships.

Are there any other benefits?Such technology would be good for the planet, says Jaymi Heimbuch at Treehugger, as it would prevent the use of "environmentally damaging chemicals and foams." Plus, says Michael Trei at DVICE, it might rid New York City of "all those pesky fire hydrants" that prevent us parking wherever we like.

What might the wand look like?We're picturing a "Harry Potter-style device," says Fox News, firing the kind of lightning bolts that held the fiery forces of Voldemort at bay. Actually, it's likely to be slightly bigger, says Mark Brown at Wired, with a scaled-down amplifier contained in "Ghostbusters-style backpacks."

Sources: Eurekalert, IO9, Fox News, DVICE, Wired

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