Fire Experiments in Goulet Spark Interest

February 16, 2022

By Jason Kolnos

student and professor generate fire outside
Amber Topping ‘22 and Prof. Nicole Eyet generate small-scale pool fires outside of Goulet Science Center.

For the last eight years, Chemistry Professor Nicole Eyet and several students have been conducting some of the hottest research on campus…literally.

Using a variety of experiments, they are learning more about the dynamics of fire and the science behind the flames. Eyet has worked with investigators from the Manchester Fire Department as well as professionals with the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives over the years and shared data with them.

This research has potential applications in arson and fire investigations, Eyet said. Plus, setting things ablaze in controlled experiments is quite fun.

“Everybody likes a bonfire, so doing research on it makes it interesting. But it’s also research that the students enjoy,” she said.

Eyet’s background is in atmospheric chemistry and she teaches a variety of courses including general chemistry, physical chemistry and instrumental chemistry. The spark that prompted her to get into fire research came in 2013 from Briana Capistran ‘16. She wanted to look at some fire-related traits analysis and Eyet was intrigued.

That spawned a broader set of projects involving fire-related experiments that continues today.

Amber Topping ‘22 is looking into how fire moves as part of her senior thesis. On a mild day this past fall, Topping and Eyet burned acetone in a crucible to generate small-scale pool fires outside of Goulet Science Center. They analyzed video footage of each burn to predict different fire properties, with a particular focus on determining the burning rate using measured flame heights. They also observed any effects that environmental conditions such as air temperature, wind speed, and humidity may have on fire behavior.

“I hope to gain a better understanding of how fires behave and establish relevant trends in fire behavior based on surrounding conditions,” Topping said.

There isn’t as much research about smaller fires compared to larger ones like wildfires, according to Eyet. That’s why they wanted to focus on the properties of a house fire, for example, when it starts versus when the entire house is engulfed.

“Everyone uses research from big fires generally to describe how high flames should be, and how much heat,” Eyet said. “That’s great once the fire gets big enough, but if it doesn’t, we were curious.”

Another one of her students, Anthony Castagno ‘22, has been researching LED light bulbs and looking into conditions under which they could ignite something, based on a fire investigation ongoing in Maine. If you put a piece of fabric on top of a regular incandescent bulb, for example, it would eventually burst into flames. But that doesn’t happen with LED bulbs, so Eyet and Castagno have been working on different ways to figure out if or how those could start a fire.

One of the most memorable experiments occurred in 2016 involving a collaboration with Biology Professor William Ryerson and Marissa Persichini ‘18. This resulted in a publication called Exploring the Relevance and Reliability of Witness Statements in the Science of Fire Investigation” which appeared in Fire & Arson Investigator in 2019.

That experiment involved staging a fire scene and presenting professionals with a survey asking them all sorts of questions about what they observed. Saint Anselm students also watched on and their reactions were documented.

Surprisingly for Eyet, results indicated that the investigators didn’t fare any better than regular Anselmians in terms of which details they remembered and which ones they didn’t.

“If you watch ‘C.S.I.’ or ‘NCIS,’ you would assume that eyewitnesses are a kind of a Holy Grail, and they are not. We got to add a little bit more evidence to that discussion. That it’s true even of professionals.”

Though her findings are preliminary, Topping is fascinated by some of the results from her experiments. For example, there appears to be a slight increase in flame height with increasing humidity, which is a bit counter-intuitive since it might be expected that an increase in water vapor in the air would cause flame height to decrease. Also, the flame height increased slightly when it was raining as opposed to when it was not raining on the same day.

She very much looks forward to continuing her research with Eyet this spring semester to see if they can discover any more established trends.

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