Should Fire a Tornado Whip Up Fear or Fuel Efficiency?

Can the destructive force of a fire tornado be harnessed to increase fuel efficiency and clean the oil spills?

Until yesterday, the idea of a fire tornado had never even crossed my mind, but now that it’s there, I’ve been filled with terror and dread. Consider, for a second, what a fire tornado could do as it ripped across a landscape. Imagine a perfectly serene landscape being scorched by a 1,090 °C flame. Trees, houses and propane tanks all burst into flame as the fire tornado slowly crawls toward more fuel.

See? Terrifying.

However, according to researchers at the University of Maryland, fire tornadoes don’t have to be destructive or terrifying, and they might actually help solve one of engineering’s biggest problems, fuel efficiency.

In a recently published paper, University of Maryland researchers have discovered a new type of fire tornado that burns sootfree, making it a perfect candidate for increasing fuel efficiency in combustion systems, reducing carbon emissions and improving oilspill cleanup. Named the “Blue Whirl,” this unique fire tornado is far more efficient at incinerating the molecules it touches.

“Blue whirls evolve from traditional yellow fire whirls. The yellow color is due to radiating soot particles, which form when there is not enough oxygen to burn the fuel completely,” said Elaine Oran, professor of engineering and coauthor of the paper. “Blue in the whirl indicates there is enough oxygen for complete combustion, which means less or no soot. It’s therefore a cleaner burn.”

Though research into the Blue Whirl has only just begun, scientists believe that in the future, they’ll be able to harness the phenomenon, and that could mean great things for fuel efficiency.

Because of the Blue Whirl’s ability to burn fuel so completely, emissions from combustion could be reduced dramatically. If a Blue Whirl–based combustion system could be deployed in internal combustion engines, the amount of soot and pollutants that are released into the environment could be slashed. What’s more, University of Maryland researchers say that controlled Blue Whirl fire tornadoes could also help clean up devastating oil spills by burning them in place.

“In our experiments over water, we’ve seen how the circulation that 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 oilspill cleanup,” said Michael Gollner, assistant professor of fire protection engineering.

While fire tornadoes will continue to be a newfound fuel for my nightmares, I’m comforted in some small degree that engineers are figuring out a way to turn something terrifying into a force for good.