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Since people first discovered fire, we've been working to create and control the tool. More than 100,000 years later, fire continues to pose new challenges for fire researchers at the University of Maryland Fire Protection and Engineering School.
"I feel like fire is the quintessential engineering problem," says Dr. André Marshall. He's director of the Fire Testing and Evaluation Center at the school. The problem is that more recent innovations like plastics, hollow big-box furniture and electronics burn differently than more traditional furnishings like cottons and solid woods. In fact, they burn faster. The University is studying these materials in its 4,000 square foot laboratory. Grad student Isaac Leventon is a member of a team studying the plastics used in airplanes.
"Pretty much everything that you'll see in the cabin of an airplane is going to be some sort of plastic because it's cheaper; it's lighter; it can be made pretty much to look however you want it to," says Leventon. "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."
To study the plastics, the team takes large sheets of the material and cuts it into 2 inch by 6 inch samples. After placing the plastic in an upright holder, Leventon lights the sample on fire and measures aspects of the material and the flame as the fire spreads upwards. Leventon says that after about a year of burning these bookmark-sized sheets of plastic, the team will have enough data to report on how the aircraft material burns.
Another student researching fire behavior at the University of Maryland's Fire Testing and Evaluation Center is Paul Anderson. He's studying soot oxidation and the process is quite a site. A gas fueled flame streams up through a metal ring and above the ring hover two more flames, one inside the other. It's a triple flame. When Anderson is asked to describe it, he says, "I think it looks like two laser beams being shot by a Jedi master... like two comets of fire, maybe you could call them."
To study the flames, Anderson inserts a probe into the fire and then analyzes the data under an electron microscope. A team of researchers is working on this project, and their findings will allow for more accurate scientific computations and help create computer models.
The school is even answering cosmic questions about fire. This past May, graduate student Michael Bustamante took a flight on a plane that simulates zero gravity. He was working on an experiment to see how flames would behave in a zero gravity, quiescent environment. When fire burns without gravity, there are a number of ways it behaves differently. Gravity makes the hot air rise which allows new gases to move in and fuel the flames. Also, when gravity is removed, flames stop taking the tear drop shape that we're used to on Earth.
"You get these small elliptical or spherical flames depending on the shape of your burning area," explains Bustamante. His research will be used to try to design a gas burner for scientists to conduct experiments on the International Space Station or maybe someday, on Mars.
In the meantime, the researchers at the University of Maryland Fire Protection and Engineering Department will continue to consider how people's technological leaps forward affect one of our first and most primitive discoveries.
[Music: "This Is Why I'm Hot (Instrumental) by MIMS from Music Is My Savior]
Photos: Fire Science