Fast Company

Who You Gonna Call? FireBusters: The Electrical Blaster-Equipped Firemen

If there's something aflame in your neighborhood, you may soon call for firemen toting backpacks blasting bursts of electricity to snuff out the firey problem. You listening, Bill Murray?

scene from Ghostbusters

Remember Ghostbusters? Of course you do.

Now comes news suggesting that if there's something aflame in your neighborhood, you may soon call for firemen toting backpacks blasting bursts of electricity to snuff out the firey problem.

A press release from the American Chemical Society is astonishing:

A curtain of flame halts firefighters trying to rescue a family inside a burning home. One with a special backpack steps to the front, points a wand at the flame, and shoots a beam of electricity that opens a path through the flame for the others to pass and lead the family to safety.

The technology here is based on 200-year-old science that means flames (which are basically plumes of excited electrically charged particles) can be diverted by the application of an electric field--this fact has even been used to create flame-powered audio speakers. But a recent revisitation of the phenomenon by Harvard scientists has resulted in what seems like a breakthrough: By connecting a 600-watt electrical amplifier to a wand-like probe, pointing it at a flame that was burning fiercely well over a foot tall, and firing "bursts" of electricity at it (in the form of ions, we imagine) the team discovered they could literally snuff out the conflagration.

The mechanism is yet to be fully investigated, but according to Dr. Ludovico Cademartiri who headed up the team, it's partly to do with the fact that flames from burning articles contain large amounts of soot--tiny carbon particles that are responsible for clogging up chimneys, but which also readily pick up electrical charge. When the firefighting electrical wand is activated, charging up the air in front of it, the movement of the soot particles in reaction to the electrical fields seems to quash the production of flames, although the chemical source of the fire itself (remembering fire is essentially a chemistry-based phenomenon) remains unaffected.

As such the flame-suppressing powers of the electrical system don't make it suitable for large areas like forest fires. But inside rooms or onboard ships it could work well and could be fitted to the ceiling in addition to existing foam or water-based sprinkler systems. Cademartiri also suggests a refinement to the technology could possibly boost fuel combustion in car engines. 

But it's the notion that a backpack-toting fire fighter could advance on a house fire, parting the flames with a stream of electricity so that trapped people could escape unharmed, that'll capture the public's imagination the most. One question, though: Does Dan Aykroyd have a trademark on that equipment?

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