Friday, 18 November 2016

Fire is a bad master: acceptance speech of the IAWF Early Career Award

16th of November, Long Beach, California, 2nd International Smoke Symposium,
International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF).

by Dr Guillermo Rein, Imperial College London.


Guillermo (left) receives the award from Dr Tom Zimmerman,
the President of the
International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF).

I am honoured for receiving the Early Career Award and I am thankful to the Board of Directors and the IAWF for having chosen me. I also would like to thank my students, collaborators, sponsors and my family; if I did something of merit, it was because of their abundant support all the way.

Our mission, the mission of all of us attending the conference, is dual. First to understand fire, and then apply this knowledge to protect the habitants of Earth; namely humans, and Nature itself.

You see. I am an engineer, and my other affiliation is with fire safety in buildings where all fires are unwanted. It is easier: all fire is evil; it must be suppressed and not be given any change to come back to the building.

But fire in the forest can be a force for the good and only becomes evil when unbalance. Indeed, wildfires are important elements of Nature. Not only fire contributes since millions of years ago in shaping most ecosystems on Earth, but fire plays essential roles supporting life through the regulation of atmospheric oxygen, the carbon cycle, and the climate.

This obligatory balance between excess and absence must be attained through the management of fire, and makes the wildfire problem more complex, more important and more fascinating to solve.

Fire science requires more decades of fruitful work and international collaborations to mature and establish a complete understanding of the phenomena and its management. And I am delighted to see the IAWF is at the fore front of these efforts at an international scale, and has become the home where practitioners and researchers come together to talk and share.

I would like to finish with the old Finnish saying:
Fire is a good servant but a bad master”.


Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Constructive role of Peer Review in science

I am fortunate to have been interviewed by Publons on my views about peer review and scientific progress.
I took the opportunity to highlight that peer review has an essential constructive role in science, it is not only about setting a minimum standard. I also complimented the important role of editors, the elephant in the room of peer review.

The full Q&A can be read here: [download pdf file].

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Fancy dresses and flaws in flammability requirements

After reading a sign in the local charity shop, I watched this excellent 2015 BBC One investigation piece on textile flammability requirements for children's fancy dresses. It was produced after the daughter of TV presenter Claudia Winkleman was badly injured in 2014 because her fancy Halloween dress got on fire. 

BBC One found that fancy dresses had been classified as children toys and not as children’s clothing for fire safety requirements. Toys have to pass a much less onerous flammability test than children’s clothing. Hence the danger, because fancy dresses are in close proximity to the body and can be very flammable due to the fluffy arrangements of synthetic and thin fabrics.

"Flammable fancy dress clothing", watch it here.

"Flammable fancy dress clothing" by BBC One.


There are three things that I would like to highlight about this case:

1) This safety flaw in the flammability requirements is born from the wrong trade classification of the consumer product, not from a lack of understanding of the fire hazard. Now that this is known, it should be easy to rectify.

2) The response of national retailers in 2015 was overwhelming. The BBC lists the responses of 12 major companies (eg, John Lewis, Mothercare, Toys ‘R’ Us) which revisited the safety of their products. Some of them (Fara Kids, for example, see photo from our local shop below) even stopped selling fancy dresses altogether.

3) The industry response has been towards increasing flammability requirements of fancy dresses and match the higher requirements of children’s nightwear. I say this because there are current pressures asking to downgrade flammability requirements of consumer products (eg, sofas in California).

Photo of the sign in our local charity shop.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Acceptance Speech of the 2016 Lund Award

27th of September, Denver, Colorado. SFPE Conference and Expo.
by Dr Guillermo Rein, Imperial College London.


At the podium delivering the acceptance speech in Dever. Photo by M Stromgren.

I am honoured to receive the Lund award and I am thankful to the Awards Committee and the Society of Fire Protection Engineering for having chosen me. I am humbled too, especially when I read the list of winners that came before me. I must also thank my students, collaborators, sponsors and my family; if I did something of merit, it was because of their abundant support all the way.

Our mission, the mission of all of us attending the conference, is to fight this evil, fire. We aim to reduce the worldwide burden of accidental fires, and protect the lives of people, their property and the environment. Most attendees contribute to this mission through their work in industry; I, like many others, contribute to this mission through my work in academia. Industry and academia together, what a powerful partnership that is of such great importance to society.

Because I am both an engineer and a scientist, I see the value of both partners and I am very keen in growing this partnership which I see is based on three main pillars:

Students: academia forms the student, the engineers of the tomorrow, who then go to industry to start their professional journey and serve society.

Knowledge: academia creates new knowledge, things we did not know before, that add to the immense collective of human wisdom.

Innovation: Knowledge per se is not useful to engineering, but when new knowledge is combined with previous knowldge and applied in new forms and devices to solve actual problems faced by society, then magic happens.

By working together, we advance our mission more and protect society better  by delivering more and better engineers, knowledge and innovation. So now you would understand better why I am so thankful that the Society has chosen me, an academic, to celebrate contributions to the professional recognition of the Fire Protection Engineer.

I would like to wrap it up and finish with the words of the Goethe, the German writer, who once said:
 “Knowing is not enough, we must apply.
Willing is not enough, we must do” 

 

Sunday, 5 June 2016

ERC HAZE: Reducing the Burden of Smouldering Megafires

I am delighted to announce that I recently won a Consolidator Grant from European Research Council (ERC) for my group, Imperial Hazelab. With a total budget of €2m and 5 years ahead, I will be leading the project HAZE in Reducing the Burden of Smouldering Megafires: an Earth-Scale Challenge.


Dr Rein during a field trip making measurements
on an ongoing smouldering fire
.
Smouldering megafires are the largest and longest-burning fires on Earth. They destroy essential peatland ecosystems, and are responsible for 15% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. This is the same amount attributed to the whole fleet of road vehicles worldwide (or 10 times the carbon footprint of the UK), and yet it is not accounted for in global carbon budgets. Peat fires also induce surges of respiratory emergencies in the population and disrupt shipping and aviation routes for long periods, weeks even months.

The ambition of HAZE is to advance the science and create the technology that will reduce the burden of smouldering fires. Despite their importance, we do not understand how smouldering fires ignite, spread or extinguish, which impedes the development of any successful mitigation strategy. Megafires are routinely fought across the globe with techniques that were developed for flaming fires, and are thus ineffective for smouldering. Moreover, the burning of deep peat affects older soil carbon that has not been part of the active carbon cycle for centuries to millennia, and thus creates a positive feedback to the climate system.

HAZE wants to turn the challenges faced by smouldering research into opportunities and has the following three novel aims:
  1. Conduct controlled laboratory experiments and discover how peat fires ignite, spread and extinguish.
  2. Develop multidimensional computational models for the field scale (~1 km) and simulate the real phenomena.
  3. Create pathways for novel mitigation technologies in accurate prevention, quick detection systems, and simulation-driven suppression strategies.
With this research project, Europe and Imperial Hazelab have the chance to lead the way and pioneer technologies against this Earth-scale and important but unconventional source of emissions.

Aerosol imaging by NASA of Oct 1997 showing the haze released by peat megafires in Borneo. 
Visual and overlaid infrared imaging of radial smouldering spread over a sample of peat ignited at the centre. See our original photo here.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Welcome Yuqi and Franz to Imperial Hazelab

During 2015, Hazelab grew with two new PhD students who joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Yuqi Hu and Franz Richter.

Yuqi Hu is from China. He became a Safety Engineer from the China University of Geosciences in 2012 with a BSc degree, and then obtained an MSc degree from University Of Science and Technology of China in 2015. At USTC, Yuqi studied experimentally the small particles in the smoke of cigarettes. Now at Hazelab, the preliminary title of his thesis is "Experimental Investigation of Peat Fire Emissions and Haze Phenomena" and is funded by China Scholarship Council.
Franz Richter is from Germany. He became a Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College London in 2015 with a MEng degree. During this final year project, Franz studied computationally how the spread of non-uniform fires in a building affect the charring of timber structures. Now at Hazelab, the preliminary title of his thesis is "Computational pyrolysis of timber in fire" and is funded by EPSRC and Arup.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Radio interview on technology and the McMurray wildfire

Last week I was interviewed by Gareth Mitchell for the radio Click of the BBC World Service about the Fort McMurray wildfire in Canada. It is a short piece, just 3 min long, and it can he heard here. I was asked about the role of technology fighting wildfires, and I chose to highlight tankers, satellites, drones, and computer models. This is the text by BBC introducing the recording:
"The wildfire in Alberta, Canada, seems to be diminishing and residents should be able to return to the city of Fort McMurray over the next two weeks. The fire had appeared to be out of control just a few days ago but thanks to favourable weather conditions appears under control. The weather has played a huge part, but what about technology? AI, drones and satellites have all been used. Dr Guillermo Rein, from Imperial College, London and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Fire Technology explains how tech is now incorporated in fire management."
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p002w6r2

Friday, 29 April 2016

Fin's and Candle's Creative Contests

Engineering can be the most creative profession, but we engineers are in general not the best communicators nor the best at appreciating artistic work.

I always want to build on this issue and encourage a bit my engineering students' appreciation of communications and the arts. So this academic year, as in previous years, I started the courses with a Creative Contest, for both ME2 Heat Transfer, and IDX Combustion Science modules that I teach at Imperial College.

The instructions to participate were the following:

 "I have two extra copies of textbooks to give away. If interested, send me a poem, comic, drawing, painting, song, video, or anything creative that explains why you are taking this module. Art, wit and humour are allowed, even encouraged".
 
I show below the submissions. I was the sole jury and found two winners (the first two shown for each contest). Congratulations to the winners (I wish an extensive use your awards).


Fin's Creative Contest in ME2 Heat Transfer.




 

Candle's Creative Contest in IDX Combustion Science.







 

Previous years

2015 Fin's and Candle's Creative Contests in ME2 Heat Transfer and ME4 Combustion
2014 Fin's and Candle's Creative Contests in ME2 Heat Transfer and ME4 Combustion

Monday, 21 March 2016

The Fire Navigator: smoke and flame sensors in smart buildings

The Fire Protection Engineering magazine has recently published our article reporting exciting research on the theme of smart buildings and fire protection. In this work, sponsored by Chief Donald J. Burns Memorial Research Grant, my student Nahom and I developed an algorithm that uses data arriving from building sensors to detect and map an ongoing fire. The algorithm, called the Fire Navigator, then provides forecasts of future smoke and flame spread within the building, allowing to see where and how the fire would propagate if not stopped before hand.


We envision that the forecasting of fire dynamics in buildings will lead to a paradigm shift in the response to fire emergencies, providing the fire service with essential information about smoke propagation and flame spread ahead of time (i.e. minutes before it happens). Disposing of information on fire events before they actually happen would have a positive effect on the fire service efficiency and safety, therefore saving human lives and mitigating property losses and environmental damage. Smart buildings anticipate the occupants’ needs with the help of various sensors. Control of heating and air conditioning, energy consumption and lighting are now common examples of how sensors allow control over key aspects of the built environment. We want to extend this to fire safety engineering and enhanced fire fighting. Already existing smoke and heat sensors, as well as sprinklers, generate data that has yet to be harnessed and used in smart buildings. This is what our article proposes and shows how to do it.

Our work is based on combining new and old ideas. The new ideas are the use of a very quick fire model based on cellular automata theory, and the integration of  the whole system into building information models (BIM). You can read the full article at the SFPE website:

The Fire Navigator: Forecasting the Spread of Building Fires on the Basis of Sensor Data 


NOTE: This research was sponsored by SFPE and Bentley Systems via the Chief Donald J. Burns Memorial Research Grant. We thank Arup, specially Judith Schulz, for sharing their expertise in BIM and fire protection systems, and thank KPF for permitting the use of their architectural BIM models.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Tackling the haze in South-East Asia: a call to COP21 Paris

Reprint of my original article published first in the blog of The Grantham Institute.

Peat fires are raging in Indonesia and their extent is staggering. The dry season is not over and NASA satellites have already counted more than 12,000 active fires, which have emitted in excess of 1.6 Gton of carbon dioxide equivalent. This is more than Japan’s annual emissions and close to the footprint of the whole of India. In fact, if peat fire emissions were considered, Indonesia would be the 4th highest emitting country in the world. With COP21 climate negotiations on carbon emissions due to start in just over a week, this widespread haze is choking the population and fauna.

Driven by energy goals and climate change, international efforts are moving towards reducing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and limiting the burning of fossil fuels. However, by ignoring smouldering fires, a major source of greenhouse gases is being overlooked.

The long slow burn

Smouldering fire is a natural phenomenon that burns Earth’s organic-rich deposits, primarily peatlands, soils and coal. Sometimes termed smouldering megafires, these are the largest and longest burning fires on Earth and take place not only in Indonesia, but also in Siberia, Alaska, Florida and Australia to name a few.

Peat megafires destroy essential peatland ecosystems, and release huge quantities of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane, making up 15% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. This is the same amount attributed to the whole of the European Union, or all the vehicles worldwide – and yet it is not accounted for in global carbon budgets.

Moreover, the burning of deep peat affects older soil carbon that has not been part of the active carbon cycle for centuries to millennia, and thus creates a positive feedback to the climate system (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. The peat fire problem at the Earth scale, including climate feedback. By G Rein, CC BY 3.0 license

Why so large?

Smouldering combustion is the slow, low temperature, flameless burning of porous fuels. It is sustained by the heat released when oxygen directly oxidises the carbon on the surface of organic soil particles. Once ignited, subsurface organic layers such as those in peatlands or carbon-rich soils burn slowly for long periods of time, spreading deep into the ground and over extensive areas.

Possible ignition events can be natural (e.g. lightning, self-heating, volcanic eruption) or anthropogenic (land management, accidental ignition, arson). Smouldering fires can be initiated by weak sources of ignition and are typically the most difficult to extinguish. Smouldering suppression requires much larger amounts of water than extinguishing flaming fires (it requires actual flooding of the land).

Easy ignition and difficult suppression make smouldering fire the most persistent type of combustion phenomenon on Earth. These fires burn for very long periods of time, lasting months, years, or even decades, despite extensive rains, weather changes and fire-fighting attempts. Peat fires have been active in Indonesia this season for the last more six months or more. They have become endemic in some areas of the world.


Figure 2. Visual and overlaid infrared imaging of radial smouldering spread over a sample of peat ignited at the centre. Photo by Rackauskaite, Huang and Rein (CC BY 3.0 license) http://blogs.egu.eu/divisions/sss/2014/10/01/soils-at-imaggeo-fire-watch-constellation


The Triple Challenge

Given the scale of the problem, relatively little action is being taken. I have identified three major challenges hampering global action:

Challenge #1 – Scientific understanding is poor: There are still large gaps in our knowledge of how smouldering fires ignite, spread or extinguish, which impedes the development of any successful mitigation strategy. Poor scientific knowledge on smouldering even leads to fatal misunderstandings and confusion between flaming and smouldering combustion.

Challenge #2 – Non-existent mitigation technologies: Smouldering megafires are routinely fought across the globe with techniques that were developed for flaming fires. These techniques are ineffective for smouldering fires because the heat transfer and the chemistry involved are completely different. For instance, aerial tankers do nothing to stop smouldering fires because flooding is required instead, and satellite monitoring substantially underestimates the size of peat fires because smouldering can spread underground.

Challenge #3- Topic fragmented among scientific disciplines: Smouldering megafires are an intrinsically multidisciplinary theme requiring collaboration by combustion scientists, ecologists, atmosphere scientists and biochemists.

These three challenges must be overcome before effective mitigation strategies can be implemented. While the largest fires on Earth continue releasing naturally stored carbon into the atmosphere, we are failing to protect both people and the planet.

A Call to Paris

We can reduce the worldwide burden of smouldering megafires and create new technology drivers by pursuing greater experimental understanding and up-scaling our research in the field.

Science is an essential enabler of understanding of peat fires. By strengthening the importance of fundamental knowledge and by consolidating the disciplines interested in the phenomenon, I believe combustion science will serve as the basis for tackling wildfires.

COP21 in Paris has the chance to mobilise the resources needed to advance the science that can lead the way and pioneer technologies against this Earth-scale but unconventional source of emissions.

Further Reading

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Our Student at the Royal Welcome of Chinese President

I was delighted to learn that my PhD student Xinyan Huang attended the Royal Welcome and Honour Guard Inspection held by Queen Elizabeth II for the Chinese President Xi Jinping. This is a traditional ceremonial welcome to foreign leaders visiting the UK. It took place last Tuesday near Buckingham Palace with the presence of senior royal family members and political leaders.

Xinyan was invited by Lord Chamberlain. There were 80 guests, 40 Chinese and 40 British. He was invited as one of three students representing the 150,000 Chinese students in UK. An important factor for being chosen for the honor is that Xinyan was the only student from Imperial College winning the 2014 National Award for Outstanding Chinese Student Studying Abroad given annually worldwide by the China Scholarship Council.
 
Xinhua media describes it like this: "With 41 rounds of gun salute fired from Green Park and 62 from the Tower of London, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, bathed in rare London sunshine, formally welcomed Xi and Peng at the Royal pavilion on Horse Guards Parade".

Xinyan on the guest stage with the Honour Guard in the back.
Note: Xinyan is graduating from Imperial College soon and joins the University of California at Berkeley as a postdoc in the laboratory of Prof Fernandez-Pello.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Fire Science is in Season

Article reprinted with permission from the Combustion Institute
 
by Guillermo Rein, Imperial College London, UK
and Naian Liu, University of Science and Technology, China


Wildfires in the United States this season are raging in California and other regions. Thousands of people have been evacuated from their communities, their homes lost. Millions of hectares of forest have burned. Countries in the southern hemisphere such as Australia and South Africa are preparing for what government agencies expect to be a severe brushfire season. Billions of U.S. dollars are spent annually around the world to fight wildfires. Particularly large firefighting budgets are approved in the United States, Australia, Canada, China and the European Union.

But let’s start with the broad context to the wildfire problem borrowing ideas from (Rein 2015). Fire is a natural phenomenon. It contributed to shaping most ecosystems on Earth and plays essential roles supporting life through the regulation of atmospheric oxygen, the carbon cycle, and the climate. However, wildfire is also a hazard to life, and when it threatens human populations or valuable ecosystems, it must be suppressed.


Despite its central importance to the planet and to humanity, our understanding of fire remains limited. For example, we currently cannot predict the location of a fire in 30 minutes time. To quote Prof HC Hottel at MIT (1984): “A case can be made for fire being, next to the life processes, the most complex of phenomena to understand”. It comes as no surprise, then, that the discipline of fire science is less mature than other combustion topics.

Fire has been a topic of interest to the Combustion Institute since its foundation in 1954. For the combustion expert, wildfires are large-scale turbulent non-premixed flames fed by pyrolysis of a condensed-phase natural fuel. Historical contributions from combustion research have been especially important in understanding ignition and flame spread of natural fuels, flame radiation and emissions. Recent contributions include work published in Combustion and Flame or Proceedings of the Combustion Institute on flame spread over porous fuel beds (Liu et al. 2014), wildfire radiation (Cruz et al. 2011), forecasting wildfire dynamics (Rochoux et al. 2013), thermofluids of fire whirls (Lei et al. 2015) and heterogeneous chemistry of smoldering wildfires (Huang and Rein 2014).

Left: Flame spread experiment over an artificial inclined canyon. Photo by JR Raposo (Laboratory for Forest Fire Studies - LEIF, Coimbra, Portugal) 2014. Right: Combination of high-speed imaging shots shows the formation of a 1kW fire whirl under different angular speeds. Image by J Lei (SKLFS, China) 2014.


We must highlight the most recent contribution of combustion science to wildfires. The work of Finney et al. (2015) just published in PNAS is a scientific breakthrough. Finney et al. have discovered the long-missing piece of the puzzle to understand wildfire dynamics. For the first time, their work puts forward a fundamental, comprehensive and verifiable theory of flaming wildfire spread. Finney’s theory relates the rate of spread to basic fluid mechanics and heat transfer, and it is strongly supported by laboratory measurements and field observations. We expect Finney’s theory to have a profound impact in the field. Once implemented into a new fire spread model, the theory would improve predictions of fire behavior and help them gain in both accuracy and consistency. This in turn would allow the simulations used by the Fire Service worldwide to provide more reliable information for deployment and disaster management of fire incidents.

Combustion science is an essential enabler of understanding of wildfire dynamics. It is expected that by strengthening the importance of fundamental knowledge and by growing the fire community in the Combustion Institute, combustion science will serve as the basis for tackling wildfires.

References
  • MG Cruz, BW Butler, DX Viegas, P Palheiro, Characterization of flame radiosity in shrubland fires, Combustion and Flame 158 (2011) 1970–1976.
  • MA Finney, JD Cohen, JM Forthofer, SS McAllister, MJ Gollner, DJ Gorham, K Saito, NK Akafuah, BA Adam, JD English (2015) The role of buoyant flame dynamics in wildfire spread. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.1504498112.
  • HC Hottel, Stimulation of fire research in the United States after 1940, Combustion Science and Technology, 1984, 39:1–10.
  • X Huang, G Rein, Smouldering combustion of peat in wildfires: Inverse modelling of the drying and the thermal and oxidative decomposition kinetics, Combustion and Flame 161 (2014) 1633–1644. 
  • J Lei, N Liu, L Zhang, K Satoh, Temperature, velocity and air entrainment of fire whirl plume: A comprehensive experimental investigation, Combustion and Flame 162 (2015) 745–758.
  • N Liu, J Wu, H Chen, L Zhang, Z Deng, K Satoh, DX. Viegas, JR. Raposo, Upslope spread of a linear flame front over a pine needle fuel bed: The role of convection cooling, Proceedings of the Combustion Institute 35 (2015) 2691–2698.
  • G Rein, Breakthrough in the understanding of flaming wildfires, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 112 (32), pp. 9795-9796, 2015. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1512432112.
  • MC Rochoux, B Delmotte, B Cuenot, S Ricci, A TrouvĂ©, Regional-scale simulations of wildland fire spread informed by real-time flame front observations, Proceedings of the Combustion Institute (2013), 34:2641-2647.