With a Flick of the Wand…

The first time I saw it, I was amazed. The comforting warm that radiated from it, the welcoming hue that overflowed the room, the occasional snap that filled the silence of the night. Of course, I am speaking of fire.  And with any good fire, there is always an accompanying pale of water. Knowing that water puts out flame is one of the first things that we learn; yet the same simple principle is applied today to combat wildfires and house fires. However, this often causes water damage to the environment, not to mention the need for large amounts of water to be available. But what if there was a way to extinguish such fires with just a flick of a wand?


No, I am not speaking of Harry Potter’s magic wand. Scientists at Harvard have developed their own “wand” that can extinguish flame, using electric fields. The “wand” generates an electrical field that can suppress flames very quickly and at a distance as well. Researcher Ludovico Cademartiri demonstrated at the 241st National Meeting of American Chemical Society how such a device worked. He plugged in a 600-watt amplifier and attached the “wand” to the amplifier. With the power of 600 watts, the “wand” was able to generate an electric field of about 1 million volts per meter. While that seems like an absurd amount of energy, 1 million volts per meter is “approximately the field necessary to generate a spark in dry air”, and is therefore, not dangerous to a healthy human. The scientists proceeded to move the rod towards an open flame, about 50 centimeters tall, and almost instantly, the flame died.

A phenomenon like this deems the word “wand” almost fitting, but the concepts behind it are actually quite simple. Inside of any flame, there are electrons, Ions and soot, which all respond to electric fields. By generating a current through the “wand” an electrical field is created and like opposite sides of a magnet, the field generated by the wand repels the electrons, ions and soot inside of the fire. This resulted in the fire being, “pushed” away from its fuel source, and without fuel, the fire will die.

Of course, in real life, firefighters are faced with much larger flames, so a small wand would not be much help. However, scientists are working to increase the distance that the field affects flames, and increase the power of the field generated, so large scale fires can be combated. As this technology develops, the size of the “wand” will decrease, as will the wattage it uses. It seems that only a tenth of what Cademartiri used in his demonstration is needed to put out a that same 50 centimeter flame. Nonetheless, adapting this electrical “wand” for the use of firefighters would be very beneficial to both the economic and environmental aspects of firefighting. Advancements in the “wand” technology will allow firefighters to potentially replace their use of water to put out flames, effectively removing the issue of water damage to the building as well as their reliance of an available water source. Cademartiri also reported that the “wand” could be used to control the heat distribution of flames, so this technology would not be limited to just firefighters. Any technology that requires constant care for overheating can benefit from this technology, as the “wand” and redistribute the heat to prevent overheating.

Works Cited
Choi, Charles. “Electric Wand Makes Fire Disappear.” Daily Nature and Science News and Headlines | National Geographic News. 29 Mar. 2011. Web. 6 Apr. 2011. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/110329-electric-wands-fire-firefighters-extinguish-science-harvard-chemical/>.
Melville, Kate. “Electrical “wand” Extinguishes Fires.” Science News, Research And Discussion. 28 Mar. 2011. Web. 6 Apr. 2011. <http://www.scienceagogo.com/news/20110227210048data_trunc_sys.shtml>.

One thought on “With a Flick of the Wand…

  1. As I read Kevin’s post, I recalled a moment when I was little. A mountain next to our house in Korea was on fire for several hours. I still remember the fear and anxiety inside me. But, I couldn’t believe a day would come when you could extinguish a fire with electricity. I was curious to which more extents scientists discovered and invented how to minimize the dangers of wildfires and house fires.

    Similar to electric wand referred in Kevin’s post, a new fire forecast technology was invented that could predict how a blaze will spread. This may not sound like a “big” technology or an outstanding founding; however, think of the fires in bigger scales. Let’s say a several football field-sized national museum, where a nation’s history is located, is on fire. Because the place gets filled with smoke and darkness, firefighters may not make perfect decisions and they themselves also might be in danger. To increase the efficiency for the firefighters extinguishing the blaze and to minimize the danger for humans, engineers and researchers at University of Edinburgh discovered a technology that could predict where and how quickly initial fires spread in such places. Dr.Guillerno Rein from University’s School of Engineering added, “Firefighters often have to follow their instincts when tackling a fire. This technology could give them the extra information they need to consider more options available in handling the emergency, and reduce lost opportunities or unnecessary risks, ultimately saving lives and minimizing damage.

    The technology, called Sensor Assisted Fire Fighting, is rather very simple. Small and simple sensors are incorporated into smoke alarms or CCTV cameras in the room. Because these sensors are placed on the ceiling of the rooms, these sensors not only can locate the blaze but also can record the temperature and height of it, which could better interpret the fire’s dynamics. The sensors then transfer the information to a computer, which then runs a sophisticated program to convert the information into a forecast of the fire’s dynamics. With just a few moments of technology, the firefighters could put out the fire rapidly by bearing in mind where the fire began and to where it will spread.

    However, the engineers are still enhancing this technology running under various simulations to practice for many possible occasions. Recently, engineers and researchers in UC San Diego applied this technology under many realistic conditions. They first tested the most commonly used packaging material in houses and buildings – corrugated cardboard – which has been found to affect predictions of upward flame spread during early-stage burning. With many realistic practices and applications, the Sensor Assisted Fire Fighting could be a tremendous tool for firefighters and people in danger of fire.

    The implication of this technology is that scientists even consider the very minute things around us. I thought science is about cool and unapproachable things like finding a periodic table, landing on a moon, and discovering of stem cells. But, science seems to have a special power to amaze everyone even with unpopular topics – an idea of extinguishing a fire with electricity. Knowing both the Sensor Assisted Fire Fighting and the electric wand, it would be a cool idea to install both of them to automatically detect the fire and extinguish it.

    University of Edinburgh. “Fire forecast technology could help rescue teams save lives.” ScienceDaily, 30 Nov. 2010. Web. 18 Apr. 2011.
    University of California – San Diego. “Engineers predict how fire spreads in warehouses.”ScienceDaily, 7 Feb. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2011.

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