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Researchers hope to use firenadoes to clean up oil spills

Courtesy: University of Maryland

Courtesy: University of Maryland

Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, August 10, 2016, 4:55 PM - Fire tornadoes -- or 'firenadoes' -- can be wild and unpredictable, but a team of researchers at the University of Maryland are hoping to harness their power, transforming them into an eco-friendly alternative to cleaning up oil spills.

While studying firenadoes, the team discovered a new type of flame called the "blue whirl".

“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,” Elaine Oran, one of the study's co-authors said in a statement.

“Blue in the whirl indicates there is enough oxygen for complete combustion, which means less or no soot, and is therefore a cleaner burn.”

Typical fire tornadoes tend to burn bright red or orange and are hard to predict, but scientists say blue whirls are more stable.

Normally, spills are cleaned by burning the oil on the surface of the water, which can generate harmful emissions, but if blue whirls can be re-created on a large scale, it will clear the oil at a much cleaner rate.

“A fire whirl is usually turbulent, but this blue whirl is very quiet and stable without visible or audible signs of turbulence,” corresponding author Huahua Xiao said in a statement. 

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

A complete paper on the findings has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What is a firenado?

"Although the source of energy for a fire whirl is very different than for a tornado - the tornado gets it from storm cloud above, while the fire whirl's energy comes from the fire below - they form in roughly the same way," says Weather Network digital meteorologist Scott Sutherland.

FIRENADO: Incredible 'fire tornadoes' whirl through our nightmares

"The atmosphere naturally sets up rolling 'tubes' of air above the ground, as friction slows down the winds closest to the ground, which then introduces a drag on the winds above, pulling them down slightly, and this cascades upward. When these kinds of tubes encounter a powerful updraft, like the ones flowing into the bottom of a thunderstorm or the ones created by the heated air from a roaring fire, the tube turns from horizontal to vertical and the updraft causes it to rotate faster and tighten up into these powerful spinning vortexes."

According to Sutherland,fire whirls can be smaller in nature but they can also strengthen to an EF2 or EF3 tornado.

Sources: University of Maryland | PNAS


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