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Scientists Discover the Ecological “Blue Whirl” Fire Tornado

Scientists Discover the Ecological “Blue Whirl” Fire Tornado

There’s been arguably no more integral “invention” to humankind than our discovery of fire. With our ability to harness its energy for things like cooking and heat, we significantly advanced the possibilities for the human race. Quite simply: delay that discovery, delay human progress. But what about fire tornadoes? Might it be possible to harness their energy, too?

“A fire tornado has long been seen as this incredibly scary, destructive thing,” says Michael Gollner, co-author of a new fire tornado study at the University of Maryland. “But, like electricity, can you harness it for good? If we can understand it, then maybe we can control and use it. This is the first time fire whirls have been studied for their practical applications.”

One of the downsides of fire is that its burn creates damaging emissions. But perhaps there’s a way to control fire tornadoes, fire’s hellish evolved form, for a cleaner burn.

For the new study, scientists were testing fire tornadoes’ response to fuel on the surface of water, hoping that they might discover a more efficient way to burn oil after major spills. During their tests, they observed “blue whirls” inside the tornadoes.

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

The blue whirl, in addition to being a great ecological analog to superheroes like Storm and the Red Tornado, means a much cleaner means of cleaning up oil spills. The challenge will be scaling it from lab-sized samples to full-fledged, ocean-ready vortices.

“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,” adds Gollner. “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 larger scale, we can further reduce airborne emissions for a much cleaner means of spill cleanup.”

This blue whirl is also relatively quiet and stable compared to other fire tornadoes, meaning it probably won’t destroy us in its cleaning missions. Ideally, we could bypass the problem of oil spills altogether by relying less heavily on oil as a fuel source, but at least this will offer a better alternative for the time being.

The research appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)as New Atlas reports. Check out the video above and let us know what you would do with a blue whirl in the comments.

Image: University of Maryland

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