Umd Researchers Let It Burn In The Name Of Science (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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UMD Researchers Let it Burn In The Name of Science

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
Heading back to Earth now, let's continue our feeling the heat theme by talking about fire. Turns out researches in our very own neck of the woods know a thing or two about fire. They actually spend their days studying how a flickering flame becomes a blazing inferno. Raphaella Bennin headed to the University of Maryland to check out the latest research that has these folks truly fired up.

MS. RAPHAELLA BENNIN

00:00:27
Graduate student Paul Anderson is fiddling with his experiment on a large metal table at the University of Maryland's Fire Testing and Evaluation center. He has a tower fire setup. The whole thing is pretty small and contained but honestly beautiful.

MR. PAUL ANDERSON

00:00:42
I think it looks like two laser beams being shot by a, you know, a Jedi master.

BENNIN

00:00:49
The gas fueled flame streams up through a metal ring. And above the ring hover two more flames one inside the other. A triple flame or two laser beams being shot by a Jedi master.

ANDERSON

00:01:01
I'm going to rapidly insert a probe into different places in the flame and then we're going to take a look under an electron microscope. That's it.

BENNIN

00:01:12
That short click was the probe collecting information about the flames behavior. And what Anderson finds under the microscope will help the school design more accurate computer models for fires. There are still a lot of mysteries about fire that researchers would like to solve.

MR. ANDRE MARSHALL

00:01:26
I feel like fire is the quintessential engineering problem.

MR. ANDRE MARSHALL

00:01:31
That's André Marshall, the director of the Fire Testing and Evaluation Center.

MR. ANDRE MARSHALL

00:01:35
So ever since we first created fire, we had this challenge of being able to put it out.

BENNIN

00:01:42
And he says it's a challenge that continues to change over time.

MARSHALL

00:01:45
Building materials and furnishing are changing in the modern environment. There are a lot more plastics that are used. And plastics tend to burn faster than traditional commodities that were maybe more wood based. And the construction of the furniture is not always solid. Sometimes it is hollow. With this hollow construction, the fire may spread more quickly through the furniture.

MR. ISAAC LEVENTON

00:02:11
And I'm just going to light this with a torch.

BENNIN

00:02:17
Back in the lab, grad student Isaac Leventon is testing how some of those modern materials burn. He's studying the plastics used in airplanes.

LEVENTON

00:02:25
It's pretty much everything you will see in the cabin of an airplane is going to be some form of plastic because it's cheaper, it's lighter, it can be made pretty much to look however you want it to. But one of the problems with that is unlike bricks or something it's going to burn. And so we're trying to understand that behavior a lot better than we presently know it.

BENNIN

00:02:43
Leventon says that after about a year of burning these bookmark sized sheets of plastic, they'll have enough data to report on how some of the materials that carry us through the friendly skies burn. But the school is looking at fire even higher than the clouds.

MR. MICHAEL BUSTAMANTE

00:02:56
All right, so our project is to try to identify the limits of burning in a quiescent environment in microgravity. So quiescent would be like a still environment so you don't have any wind blowing.

BENNIN

00:03:08
Yep, microgravity. Graduate student Michael Bustamante wants to see how fire burns when there's little to no gravity, like on the International Space Station. So this past May, Bustamante took a flight on a plane that simulates zero gravity.

BUSTAMANTE

00:03:23
So I was floating in front of my rig and my rig stood up higher than my head and we were using a touch screen. And every time I would push my legs would fly out.

BENNIN

00:03:32
With his legs kicking and floating, Bustamante pressed a button on the touch screen and several wicks were lit. He quickly saw that fire really does behave differently when gravity is removed from the equation.

BUSTAMANTE

00:03:43
Obviously fire is hot, and everybody knows that. But the hot air also gets a lot lighter. And in the presence of gravity, that air lifts up.

BENNIN

00:03:52
And when hot air rises, oxygen can move in to take its place and encourage the fire to keep burning. Without gravity...

BUSTAMANTE

00:03:59
You get these small elliptical of spherical flames depending on the shape of your burning area.

BENNIN

00:04:05
Versus more of a tear drop shape that you would get on earth?

BUSTAMANTE

00:04:09
Exactly, exactly.

BENNIN

00:04:11
Researchers will use this data to design a gas burner that could be used on the space station or maybe someday by scientist on Mars. The project just goes to show as we take technological leaps forward, we can't forget about one of our first and most primitive discoveries. I'm Raphaella Bennin.

SHEIR

00:04:33
To check out some of the fiery research being done at the University of Maryland, head to our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

00:04:47
Time for a quick break. But in just a minute, the heat continues with HOT lanes. Get it? H-O-T lanes, hot, hot. Anyway...

MR. CHARLIE KILPATRICK

00:04:57
I think it's frankly unrealistic to believe that there's sufficient public funds to fund these enormous projects in Virginia.

SHEIR

00:05:05
That and more is just ahead on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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