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.

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:


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.

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.

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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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)