Scientists Discover A New Type Of Fire... And It Could Aid In Cleaning Up Oil Spills

They call it the "blue whirl."

Scientists at the University of Maryland have discovered a new type of fire that burns without any soot, creating a spinning, pale blue flame that looks like something you might see in a Harry Potter movie. The researchers have named this ghostly new phenomenon the "blue whirl."

The researchers, who published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal, were studying fire tornadoes, or "fire whirls," as a possible solution to oil spills when they made their discovery of this previously unobserved state of combustion.

Fire whirls, the researchers explained, "form in large urban and wildland fires when winds interact with obstacles or natural features in the terrain." The combination of wind and fire can cause massive devastation on land as the funnel reaches down towards the earth, incinerating everything in its path. These flames burn with a yellow or orange color which, according to Smithsonian.com, "occurs when the fire is not able to completely consume its fuel and produces soot."

Over water, however, fire whirls behave a little differently. They are formed when winds interact with fires burning on the surface of a body of water, a phenomenon known as a pool fire.  

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The researchers discovered this new flame when they pumped heptane gas into a pool of water and set it alight. The familiar fire funnel burned yellow as expected... but then suddenly became stable, burning with pale blue flame, indicating that it had sufficient oxygen to burn cleanly and without soot. They were later able to replicate the experiment using crude oil.

The researchers speculate that "the existence of an air–water–fuel boundary layer" in a pool fire "instead of a fuel–air boundary on a solid surface" as seen in a fire tornado is a contributing factor to the creation of a blue whirl.

In a press release announcing the discovery of the blue whirl, researcher Michael Gollner discussed the possible applications of the blue whirl in oil spill cleanup. "Fire whirls are more efficient than other forms of combustion because they produce drastically increased heating to the surface of fuels, allowing them to burn faster and more completely. In our experiments over water, we've seen how the circulation fire whirls generate also helps to pull in fuels. If we can achieve a state akin to the blue whirl at a larger scale, we can further reduce airborne emissions for a much cleaner means of spill cleanup."

For more on blue whirls, check out the University of Maryland's brief video on their discovery.

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