back to article Fire-quenching electric forcefield backpack invented

Boffins in America say they're on the track of a backpack electro-beam forcefield device capable of snuffing out raging fires without any need for water, hoses or other traditional firefighting apparatus. Apart from portable applications, they raise the possibility that the new technology might replace building sprinkler systems …


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  1. Anonymous Coward


    Great, I look forward to reading about an entire office block of people being electrocuted when one of these things goes off by mistake.

    1. Jim 59


      You look forward to it ?

  2. Naughtyhorse

    the good news...

    is that the fire is out.

    the bad news is that all the disks were wiped by the e-field and everything else was cooked by back emf!

  3. Chemist

    Earliest ref. I can find (quickly) is from1985 ...

    Physics and Astronomy

    Combustion, Explosion, and Shock Waves

    Volume 21, Number 4, 401-403, DOI: 10.1007/BF01463407

    Effect of a constant electrical field on combustion of a propane-butane mixture with air

    G. A. Gulyaev, G. A. Popkov and Yu. N. Shebeko

    Some of the refs. are a lot older

  4. ShaggyDoggy

    600 watt Amp

    Let's turn that thing up to 11

  5. Oliver Mayes

    Star Trek already did it

    The Enterprise-D would project a forcefield around a fire and let it burn out as the oxygen inside was consumed. Sounds like this is a similar idea.

    Any thoughts on what it would do to a person's oxygen consumption? I can imagine this has potential applications as a future 'crowd-control' device.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      It is not a similar idea

      The electrical field is not snuffing out the oxygen nor is it starving the flame - actually, nobody knows how it does work. I suspect house elves myself, but I have no proof.

      On the other hand, I must admit that, as a crowd-control device, a vast electrical field seems to fit the bill perfectly. Much like an omni-directional taser, one zap and a hundred people hit the ground writhing. Yep, sounds realistic. Much more than a magical flame-snuffing wand.

      I'd be curious to see a video of that effect. The flame-snuffing, I mean. The crowd-control video will show up soon enough on YouTube, I wager.

      1. John Gamble

        I'm Wondering About Prior Art

        I recall a 1970s article in Popular Science showing an electrical flame suppressor. It was small, and the flame it was suppressing was even smaller, but the concept was there.

        Obviously, it could have been using an entirely different process. But it would be interesting to compare and contrast.

    2. bob 46


      "Sounds like this is a similar idea"

      Did we read the same article? My assumption was that a strong electrical field somehow supresses one of the many chemical interactions taking place in the fire. Your assumption was that the electrical field somehow completely re-writes the laws of physics, allowing pseudo-science from a completely fictional television show to become real.

      Actually, I prefer your theory...

  6. Adrian Challinor

    Can I be the first to say

    What ever you do, don't cross the beams.

    1. stucs201


      So now when you have a fire you have a choice between the men with hoses and the men with electric backpacks. 'who ya gonna call?'

      1. Chris Hance

        In that case, definitely don't cross the streams.

        Somehow a high-volume water discharge meeting a high-voltage electric field doesn't strike me as the safest plan for all involved.

    2. dssf

      Don't cross the beams

      Don't cross or sweep the BUILDINGS either... might pass some badddd current up and down...

  7. tas

    @Adrian Challinor, lol

    Love the Ghostbusters reference. :)

    So muggle scientists (re-)discover the Put-Outer?

  8. Anonymous Coward

    600 W and a wand you say...

    This sounds like something the BOFH would like to "customize"....

    1. Chad H.

      Paging Simon... Pagining Simon

      Indeed... This device BEGS for a BOFH tale.

      1. DJ 2

        Glowing Bean Counters.

        Halon + Electrical Field + Accountants.

    2. stucs201


      Sounds like a worthy supplement to the Halon system :)

  9. Paul_Murphy

    I would like to see a video of this.

    Is it a cone-shaped projection from the wand? a spherical area? a beam? - in fact can you change the shape of the 'forcefield' at all? that could make a cool 'fire door' possible, only this one would move the curtain of fire to let people through.

    Most of all - how come, after centuries of familiarity with fire, we are hearing about this now? As Chemist says above there are much older references to this sort of work, but has no-one been bothered by this before now.

    Maybe it's because it's only fairly recently that electricity is available to use fairly readily.

    Where does the fire go? is some alternate reality or dimension wondering where all these fires are coming from?

    Why not have a playmobil rendition - it's time to un-dust those figures people!


    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      You've seen one - you've seen all of them

      You just wave the wand and shout "Ignis exstinguo!"

      Just like any other spell in Harry Potter movies...

  10. Ian Yates

    Sprinkler system

    I always thought that the sign of a good safety device was one that worked in the absence of something telling it not to. i.e, dead man's handles or engine governers.

    Sprinkler systems work through water pressure, but this new device will require electricity. I may be wrong, but their version (while very cool) sounds like it has the most potential to fail in its duty.

    1. Uk_Gadget


      ......... They could combine the new tecnologies, have the water sprinklers as a backup.

      Imagine the fine of getting both to go off at the same time..... Simon?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Real dead man's handles ...

      ... require so much force to operate that only a dead man with severe rigor mortis can hold one down for a full working day. Fortunately the railway companies provide a satchel full of weighty tomes that describe who gets the blame for every conceivable type of accident. The satchel has a handy strap that loops over a dead man's handle, and allows a driver to work a full shift.

      1. Anomalous Cowturd

        Re: Real dead man's handles ...

        I think you'll find that most modern "Dead man" devices work on the principle of repeatedly pressing and releasing a small switch, usually mounted on the throttle / speed controller. Precisely to stop people from weighting down the switch, and defeating the whole point of the thing.

        Or they did last time I drove a train. Circa 1992.

        STOP. That's what it is supposed to do.

        1. dssf

          REAL Dead man's handles

          Then, in that case, the dead man has to be animated (or, electrically REanimated) to keep jabbing that button...

    3. Anonymous Coward

      Needs electricity?

      Oh come on, who in their right mind would design a major safety system that *required* electricity to function?

      I mean, hell, can you imagine someone proposing that for, say, a nuclear power station?


      1. Ammaross Danan

        Correction to AC @13:26

        "Oh come on, who in their right mind would design a major safety system that *required* electricity to function?

        I mean, hell, can you imagine someone proposing that for, say, a nuclear power station?"

        Jumping the nuclear fearmongering isn't good taste. So, here's a correction for you: the nuclear power station that you're referring to had its "safety system" work flawlessly: the control rods were slammed into place and stopped the nuclear reaction. Now, as for the COOLING system, that has the obvious power requirement to keep the liquids moving. Now, if you can come up with a way to keep liquid, in a closed system, circulating with no outside power requirements, I'm sure there's a long list of people who would like to talk to you.

        Back to the real world, the cooling system has 4 tiers or power requirements: grid power, generator power, battery power, and plug-in generator power. Only the battery power worked. Generators that could plug into the system could not be sourced in the 8hr battery-operating window. Now, they could dump sea-water into the system, as they did, as a "safety system" backup for the cooling. It is unclear whether this is generator-powered pumped, or more of a water-pressure-based system.

        So no, you're attempt at a joke is both in bad taste and wrong. Sorry.

        1. Hermes Conran

          ever heard of


          (flames for melting reactor)

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Thumb Down

          Bad taste

          Of course it was in bad taste, didn't you see the icon?

          The rest of the discussion belongs in other threads, where I've made very similar comments to yours,although I disagree on the ability to make passive cooling systems. They exist. Isn't anonymity fun.

        3. Anon

          Gravity & density differences

          "if you can come up with a way to keep liquid, in a closed system, circulating with no outside power requirements..." - see back-boilers, which work by convection. Not only for liquids: domestic radiators give off most of their heat by convection, not, as the name would suggest, by radiation.

        4. TRT Silver badge


          " Now, if you can come up with a way to keep liquid, in a closed system, circulating with no outside power requirements, I'm sure there's a long list of people who would like to talk to you."

          Steam turbines or steam pistons.

  11. Dave Walker 1
    Thumb Up

    Reminds me of school

    I remember a physics experiment at school where you had to map the electric field around a sphere by measuring the deflection of a small flame. The reason that it stick in my memory is that the sphere used was a plastic ball covered in a metallic paint, and despite the strong exhortations to not measure too closely, at least one person would destroy the ball each time the experiment was run...

    That's got to be a few years ago now, though

  12. The elephant in the room

    So if you can use an electric field to put out a fire...

    ...then I can use a magnetic field to start a fire! Mwha ha, Mwha ha ha, Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Witness the power of Magnet Boy!

    1. Luther Blissett

      I can do that

      Method is to use a magnetic field to create charge separation and when the potential difference is large enough to overcome the dielectric, you send it to a pointy thing, and Bob's your uncle.

  13. Johnny G

    What about the heat energy?

    Assuming these "unknown" forces can extinguish a flame, the actual flame in a burning building is only half the problem. Hot gasses are what ignites other flammable objects. How would this pulse of electricity remove all that heat energy?

    E.g. if you pointed this device at a Bunsen burner, it might knock out the flame. Gas would still be released. If you knocked out the flame on a red hot burning timber, the flame would almost instantly reignite becasue the temperature of the wood itself and surroundings.

    1. Ross 7

      Best guess

      My best guess is that it operates on the electrons - oxygen is rather electronegative, so by electron saturating the fuel you make it harder for the oxygen to react with it. It'll be a temporary effect, however if you can drop the heat for even a fraction of a second it's often enough as you need energy to keep the combustion going. As an example, stick a Bunsen burner on, then quickly kill and restart the gas supply.

      Of course that causes a secondary problem (a room full of combustable gas) but in general fire fighters know that it's better to leave something like that to burn whilst you turn it off, rather than blow it out and wait for the explosion.

  14. Fluffykins Silver badge

    Summat like this?

    Extinction of Flames in a Nonuniform Electric Field

    That's a bit wordy. Personally, I prefer 'KZZZZRRRTTT!'

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      De Forest?

      Isn't that much the same physics that applies within a thermionic valve?

  15. annodomini2
    Thumb Up


    The real benefit will be for spacecraft, fires are major problem for ships and aircraft.

    In space the problem goes up another level.

    Not having to carry lots of extinguishing material or refill the material will be of major benefit for space missions, especially deep space missions where a resupply is not possible.

    I can see major space companies watching this with great interest.

    1. Stumpy

      Surely though...

      In space missions, it would just be easier to seal bulkheads and pump out the atmosphere?

      1. annodomini2

        What if....

        The fire is in the bulkhead and there is only one exit? As in most spacecraft.

        The other issue is time, the faster the fire is extinguished the better, sealing the bulkheads may take time you may not have.

        I get your point, but venting should be a last resort.

      2. Mike Moyle

        Just shut off the ventilators

        My recollection is that, since hot air doesn't rise in zero-g, simply shutting off the ventilators allows a fire to build a sphere of CO/CO2 around itself, snuffing itself out pretty quickly.

        ...Which is not to say that I wouldn't want a backup system, in case the fire was keeping me from getting to the fan's "off" switch, but I'm just saying, in general...

    2. Old Handle


      Possibly, although if it only works on burning carbon, that's a limitation. Space ships fire would often involve more exotic fuels hydrogen or metals.

      1. Tom 13

        The theory is still valid for any x0/x02

        The first problem is when the fire is in your 02 source, which given the nature of current spacecraft design, is highly likely. The second problem is that even if you put the fire out, if the fire consumes too much of your 02 source, you're still dead before you can land again. You need some minimum amount of braking thrust, and that 02 is critical for that.

    3. dssf

      Speaking of DeForest, and spacecraft

      McCoy: Dear Lord... what if... this thing were use where live already exISTED?

      Spock: If would preCLUDE such life in favor of its new MATRIX.

      McCoy: Its "new MATRIX"? Do you realize what you're saying?

      Spoc: I was not attempting to ascertain the MORAL implications... Really Doctor..


      Savvik: Admiral!

  16. Peter Clarke 1

    Can I Be The First To Say

    Don't Snuff me, bro!

    Actually I can see the device using the acronym SNUFF

  17. Stuart Halliday
    Thumb Up

    It's all in the charge.

    Flames are in effect plasma and these streams of ions can be controlled by a EMF field.

    Think of those negative ion devices some IT engineers put near their servers to direct dust away from intake fans?

    Be nice to see a video of this theory in practise.

  18. Anonymous Coward

    large electric fields...

    For all the electric sheep?

    I must be dreaming again.

    Android icon obviously...

  19. Darryl

    Forest fires

    Wonder if this would scale to large mobile units that could be used to control forest fires

  20. David Pollard

    A flash-bang generator

    As others have noted, though it might quell flames this device wouldn't cool burning timbers etc.. In such situations combustible gas will presumably continue to be released until some of other fortuitous circumstance leads to its ignition; a process which is likely to be, er, swift and sudden.

  21. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up


    It looks like this is one of those things that has come up over and *over* again. People are impressed but it never seems to *go* anywhere.

    I hope this time *someone* runs with it.

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