Uncontrolled fire whirls, or fire tornadoes, can be terrifying. But one type of fire whirl may be immensely beneficial to humanity. University of Maryland engineers discovered a “beautiful, swirling flame phenomenon” they call the Blue Whirl that could provide a better, more environmentally-friendly solution for cleaning up oil spills.
The journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America published the astonishing research of scientists from the University of Maryland’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Department of Fire Protection Engineering online this month. As the engineers studied how fire whirls burn on water, they stumbled across the Blue Whirls, which could provide a means of “high-efficiency and low-emission combustion.”
Blue Whirls burn “with nearly soot-free combustion.” They’re so effective because they have plenty of oxygen. A yellow flame color indicates the presence of soot particles that weren’t completely burned due to a lack of enough oxygen. If a flame is blue, it means there’s enough oxygen to burn away those soot particles, which pollute the air.
Co-author Michael Gollner said in a press release, “A fire tornado has long been seen as this incredibly scary, destructive thing. But, like electricity, can you harness it for good? If we can understand it, then maybe we can control and use it.”
One potential use is clean-up in the aftermath of oil spills. Often the crude oil leaked in a spill is burned, but that process results in lots of pollution and emissions. If Blue Whirls were deployed instead, they could potentially clean up spills rapidly and efficiently. Fire whirls burn faster than other combustion types, so using them could mitigate some of the costly environmental damage caused by oil spills.
Typically fire whirls are turbulent, but co-author Huahua Xiao says Blue Whirls stand apart from the rest because they’re “very quiet and stable.” More research is needed on the Blue Whirls, but further studies could uncover even more uses for the mesmerizing swirling flames.