Researchers Have Discovered a New Type Of Fire Tornado

August 12, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

Fire tornado
Photo credit: University of Maryland

And it might be used to clean up oil spills in the future!

A team of researchers, from the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, has discovered a new type of fire tornado, called a “Blue Whirl.” Their latest finding might be used in a new approach to reduce carbon emissions, as well as help clear oil spills after disasters.

“Blue whirls evolve from traditional yellow fire whirls. The yellow color is due to radiating soot particles, which form when there is not enough oxygen to burn the fuel completely,” said co-author Elaine Oran, from the Glenn L. Martin Institute Professor of Engineering, in a media release. “Blue in the whirl indicates there is enough oxygen for complete combustion, which means less or no soot, and is therefore a cleaner burn.”

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The researchers started their investigation by looking at the dynamics and combustion of fire whirls occurring on water, but as they peered deeper, they discovered a new swirling blue flame which could have practical uses in the future.

“A fire tornado has long been seen as this incredibly scary, destructive thing. But, like electricity, can you harness it for good? If we can understand it, then maybe we can control and use it,” said Michael Gollner, assistant professor of fire protection engineering and co-author of the paper. “This is the first time fire whirls have been studied for their practical applications.”

“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,” explained Gollner in the release.

“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.”

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The team hopes the newly discovered fire tornado could be used to burn off the oil layers left over on the water surface of the ocean after oil spills. The potential is there to burn off the layers with increased efficiency, alongside making it a cleaner and more environmentally friendly way to clean up spills since it limits the amount of harmful emissions.

“A fire whirl is usually turbulent, but this blue whirl is very quiet and stable without visible or audible signs of turbulence,” said Huahua Xiao, assistant research scientist in the Clark School's Department of Aerospace Engineering and corresponding author of the paper. “It’s really a very exciting discovery that offers important possibilities both within and outside of the research lab.” Xiao concluded.

The findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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