A newly discovered whirling blue tornado of fire could be the most environmentally friendly way to clean up oil spills. Researchers at the University of Maryland discovered the new type of highly efficient and stable flame that could render carbon emissions from burning oil to near zero.

In the paper, “From fire whirls to blue whirls and combustion with reduced pollution,” three researchers at the University of Maryland detail their groundbreaking research into fire whirls.

Fire whirls appear naturally, mostly in large scale burnings. They are formed when intense rising heat combines with turbulent wind conditions to create whirling eddies of air. The phenomenon is also known as a fire devil, fire tornado, Firenado, fire twister, or, in Japan, as a dragon twist.

New-Fire-Whirl-cleanup-oil-spills-BODY-Wildfire Fire Whirl.jpgImage: Wikicommons: US Marine Corps.

These burning columns of flame can be highly destructive and unpredictable.

“A fire tornado has long been seen as this incredibly scary, destructive thing,” said Michael Gollner, a professor of fire protection engineering at the University of Maryland and co-author of the paper. “But, like electricity, can you harness it for good? If we can understand it, then maybe we can control and use it.”

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The study at the University of Maryland was the first to examine fire whirls for practical applications.

“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,” explained Gollner in an official Maryland University release.

The researchers set up a “fire whirl generator” fueled by oil spread across water. The experiment design was intended to mimic an oil spill in the ocean. The researchers were stunned to see the flame transition from a burning mass, to a column of fire, to a never-before-seen blue whirl.

New-Fire-Whirl-cleanup-oil-spills-BODY-Fire Whirl Transitioning to Blue.gifImage: University of Maryland

“A fire whirl is usually turbulent, but this blue whirl is very quiet and stable without visible or audible signs of turbulence,” said another of the researchers, Huahua Xiao.

The blue flame is also highly efficient. The color of a flame indicates the efficiency of the burn. A flame turns yellow when there is not enough oxygen to completely burn off the carbon present. This remaining carbon is mostly rendered as soot. A blue flame indicates a burn is producing almost no carbon or soot.

New-Fire-Whirl-cleanup-oil-spills-BODY-Blue Fire Whirl with annotations.gifImage: University of Maryland

“It’s really a very exciting discovery that offers important possibilities both within and outside of the research lab,” said Huahua.

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The study suggests a near-term application: oil spill cleanups.

In situ burning, or ISB, is a standard tactic for dealing with large-scale oil spills in water. The process includes grouping floating oil together and lighting it on fire. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says, “When conducted properly, in situ burning significantly reduces the amount of oil on the water and minimizes the adverse effect of the oil on the environment.”

Critics are not as convinced.

One of the most famous examples of ISB was the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

NOAA official statistics claim one in 20 barrels released from the underground well were burned, releasing an estimated 1.4 to 4.6 million pounds of black carbon (soot) into the atmosphere. This amount of emissions is the equivalent of all boat traffic on the Gulf of Mexico for a 9-week period of time.

A further study in 2012 found that the carbon particles produced were larger than normal fires and reached higher into the atmosphere potentially increasing their harmful impacts on the planet. Critics of ISB claim the findings should stop the use of burning in oil cleanups.

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But the new highly efficient burn of the blue whirl could completely revolutionize ISB.

“If we can achieve a state akin to the blue whirl at larger scale, we can further reduce airborne emissions for a much cleaner means of spill cleanup,” predicted Gollner.

The new form of fire opens up a wide range of academic and practical pursuits for the researchers. In the future, fire could be one of the planet’s best friends.

Watch footage of the experiment in this short video put together by SciNews.

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