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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Lloyd’s Science of Risk Prize goes to Fire Technology

Congratulations to Dr Francesco Colella for winning the Lloyd’s Science of Risk Prize in the Technology Category.

The prize was for his research paper "A Novel Multiscale Methodology for Simulating Tunnel Ventilation Flows During Fires" (published in Fire Technology). He led this work as a Research Associate at The School of Engineering from 2007 to 2010.

Dr Richard Ward, CEO of Lloyds told Francesco "The judging panel, comprising experts from academia and insurance felt your paper illustrated how novel computational methods can be used to reduce fire risk in the future. The panel were particularly impressed with how you reduced model run-time by concentrating on what is critical and by coupling fast and slower models".

This is Lloyd’s research prize for academics and aims at keeping the world’s leading specialist insurance market with the pace of academic knowledge and cutting edge thinking.

On top of this winning paper, The University of Edinburgh had three more papers short-listed as the top of each category (two of them from the fire group as well):

* Mr Craig Poland, short-listed in Technology Risk (best runner up), from the School of Medicine for his paper "Carbon nanotubes introduced into the abdominal cavity of mice show asbestos-like pathogenicity (published in Nature Nanotechnology).

* Dr Wolfran Jahn, short-listed in Technology Risk, from the School of Engineering for his paper "Forecasting Fire Growth using an Inverse Zone Modelling Approach" (published in Fire Safety Journal).

* Dr Claire Belcher, short-listed in Climate Change Risk, from the School of Geosciences for her paper "Increased fire activity at the Triassic/Jurassic boundary in Greenland due to climate-driven floral change" (published in Nature Geoscience).

See related article Hot talent in risk research in the Staff Bulletin of the University of Edinburgh.
See press release by Springer.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The domesticated animals sometimes turn back into wild beasts…

As somebody very wisely defined, fire is like a wild animal domesticated by humans: we not only learned how to use it push our vehicles, to do industrial hot work, or to produce glass, but also we taught and trained the pet to help in our daily housework with the cooking or the heating of our homes. Certainly, nobody can deny its usefulness, but the domesticated animal is always waiting for the opportunity to turn back into a wild beast… And, once this animal is on his runaway escape, it tends to climb like a primate, growling as a wild dog, searching for food in this desperate rush trying to satisfy its appetite for transformation which, far from the wild environment, mutates into an appetite for destruction instead…

In a dwelling, we typically have a few small domesticated fires; for example, those from the hobs in the kitchen, that from the boiler, and those from candles or even lighters. Very basically, these fires are kept small and dominated by controlling their supply of fuel and –sometimes– air; i.e. their basic menu. But just let these apparently harmless pets taste the flavor of the combustibles surrounding them, to see them –like vampires once they taste blood for the first time– switch into wild in an attempt to keep feeding and growing drastically powerful. Following this line, residential high-rise buildings with tens or even hundreds of apartments and figuratively countless combustibles are an awfully-high risky combination and “temptation” for these domesticated fires to break free and initiate a drastically fatal outcome eating everything in their reach.

Inevitable? Let’s say we can’t avoid the pet to turn wild every now and then, but we can definitely stop it from its fugitive run, keeping it fenced in its room of origin. Lately with the sighted rampaging beasts consuming all in front of them, can we conclude that the will to control the beast is all but extinguished, or will the human learn to capture the beast within science and engineered fields?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Christmas Lecture

This years University of Edinburgh Christmas Lecture will be given by the winner of the Tam Dalyell Prize 2010 - Professor Jose Torero.

The lecture is entitled: Fire: A story of fascination, fear and familiarity. Prof Torero will examine how fire can provide welcome warmth in everyday life but, on a bigger scale, the unpredictability of fire can be terrifying.

More information on the talk and the prize here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010 from 6:00 PM - 7:15 PM
at George Square Lecture Theatre, EH8 9LK

Book free tickets online at:
Note that tickets have run out fast for this event in previous years.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Fire Scholarships from The Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust

New Fire Safety Engineering scholarships from The Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust aim to make buildings safer from fire.

Modern buildings and the people who live and work in them will be better protected from the risk and consequences of fire, thanks to new education and research initiatives within the BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh are aiming for a better understanding of how contemporary building features – such as lighter construction materials and open-plan interiors – can influence how fires take hold and how fast they spread.

More than £200K in new student scholarships supported by The Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust will help to create a core of leaders who will use new understanding to bring change to the field.

Research and teaching programmes will seek to influence safety planning and design such as building evacuation procedures, fire-safe construction, and guidance for firefighters.

Top-flight undergraduate and postgraduate scholarship students will be recruited to create a cohort of fire safety specialists with expertise in all aspects of modern fire safety techniques.

Three LRET international MSc scholars will be sponsored through a new two-year International MSc in Fire Safety Engineering (IMFSE). The degree, the first multi-institution course of its kind globally, is operated by the Universities of Edinburgh, Lund and Ghent and funded by the European Commission’s Erasmus Mundus programme.

A further six LRET International MEng scholars will be supported in their final two years of the existing degree in Structural and Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh.

Dr Luke Bisby, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh’s BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering, said: “Building design has changed radically in recent decades – we need a pioneering approach to developing fire safety solutions. We have to ensure that the chances of fire are as low as possible and that if a fire should occur, it will have little chance to spread, everyone inside can be evacuated safely, and economic and environmental losses can be minimised. Only through research linked to innovative educational programs can new approaches to fire safety take hold.”

Michael Franklin, Director of The LRET commented: “The Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust funds exceptional students studying science, engineering and technology throughout the world. We want to encourage and help them to become the future leaders in their chosen field. We hope The LRET scholarships at the University of Edinburgh will help to increase fire safety significantly in the years to come.”

The 2010 winners of the LRET Scholarships are (from left in the photo below):

• Ieuan Rickard, LRET MEng Scholar in Fire Safety Engineering
• Sarah Higginson, LRET MEng Scholar in Fire Safety Engineering
• Eduardo Maciel, LRET International MSc Scholar in Fire Safety Engineering

Congratulations to all three of the winners!

For further information, please contact:
Dr Luke Bisby, School of Engineering, tel 0131 650 5710; email


The Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust is an independent charity that was established in 2004. Its principal purpose is to support advances in transportation, science, engineering and technology  education, training and research worldwide for the benefit of all. It also funds work that enhances the safety of life and property at sea, on land and in the air.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Note on the Philosophy of Engineering Research

Foreword to the PhD Thesis of Dr Cecilia Abecassis Empis.

A Note on the Philosophy of Engineering Research

With the arrival of the computer era came a desperate frenzy of research in all fields with an ever increasing urge to quantify, discretise and explicitly pick apart nature enabling its eloquent description using the languages of mathematics and physics.

This very urge appears to be our largest limitation in attaining a precise representation of nature. Nature is, by nature, a continuum with an infinity that can not be quantified as much in the infinite immensity of the universe’s expanse as in the infinite minuteness into which things can be dissected and in the natural continuum of anything in between, exemplified by the naturally recurring but non-recurrent irrational numbers of Pi, Euler and Fibonacci.

Nevertheless intrinsic to human nature is a desire to group things, categorise, to box knowledge into entities we can comprehend and computers have allowed us to do this more quickly. Part of this process requires an evaluation of what is to be done and what it is to be used for. Be it an equation that represents the physics of electricity, the theories that describe types of intelligence or music that depicts the dance of the bees, the limits of its “accuracy” always lie within the bounds of the assumed scale, an agreement of the axioms of compliance.

Engineering is precisely the art and craft of deciphering such problems. The skill lies in evaluating the scope of the conundrum and identifying the critical players. In outlining the discrete pieces of this puzzle, engineers have to untangle the fundamentals from the peripheral fillers. They then stand back and reason the rules of the game using them to discard unnecessary detail and weave back together the key pieces creating an optimal solution. Engineering is a mere translation tool that allows for the interpretation of nature in a way we can fathom.

It is important however to distinguish a “solution” from “natural reality”. With the computing world fast-appealing to more and more of our senses, it is often tempting to indulge in smaller and smaller dissections of our problems. As we become increasingly obsessed with intricate dependencies we run the risk of creating a solution that is self-fulfilling without realising it has departed so far from its application that it has become a mere representation of the human ego with little or no use beyond the amusement of a select few curious minds. Detail can lead to a false sense of proximity to nature whereas the very nature of engineering is to accept that any attempt to model nature will always fall short of perfect. Instead engineering embraces the asymptotic nature of complex solutions and opts for providing simple and effective shortcuts that are perfect if they solve the particular problem at hand within the scope of its axioms. Hence an engineer must be humble and not lose sight of the problem objectives, the initial assumptions and the scale delineating the limitations and applications of engineering work.

Engineering research aims to provide rational solutions that make daily life just a little bit easier in order to make time for sitting back, relaxing and to enjoy the awesomeness of the irrational, chaotic magnificence of nature.

In this light it is hoped this work will make a useful contribution.

by Cecilia Abecassis Empis

Monday, November 01, 2010

Towards the forecast of fire dynamics to assist the emergency response

A recent journal paper titled "Forecasting Fire Growth using an Inverse Zone Modelling Approach" has published in Fire Safety Journal. We are happy that the work has been widely featured in the media and many people is being exposed to the novel idea:

Effective control of a compartment fire saves lives and money. When fire fighters manage to put out a fire before it grows out of proportions, live safety is greatly increased and significant damage can be avoided. Moreover, the affected building can be re-occupied without major investment of resources. But when a fire passes a certain size, the building might collapses as a consequence of the fire damage to the structure (eg, 2001 WTC or 2005 Windsor Tower) or might have to be demolished due to irreversible damages.

Due to a lack of the required technology to support emergency response, fire fighters often have to follow their intuition when it comes to attacking the fire instead of basing their decisions on knowledge of the actual fire. This lack of information can lead to lost opportunities or unnecessary risks.

Prediction of the ongoing fire development ahead of time under different possible conditions based on the current events taking place would give fire fighters insight into the dynamics of the particular fire being flighted. With this extra knowledge, they could weight other options and feed more information into the emergency management. However, fire dynamics follow complex physical processes closely coupled to one another, which makes current tools not able to accurately forecast fire development in real time.

Figure: Conceptual representation of the data assimilation process and the sensor
steering of model predictions even when critical events take place in an evolving fire scenario.

This emerging technology has been called Sensor Assisted Fire Fighting. The FireGrid project, to which this paper belongs together with the recent PhD thesis of the lead author, aims at providing physics-based forecasts of fire development by combining measurements from sensors in the fire compartment with a range of computational modelling tools. The sensor measurements can provide essential lacking information and compensate the accuracy lost, and thus overcome the shortcomings of current modelling tools and speed them up. The proposed methodology is to collect measurements in the fire compartment, and to assimilate this data into the computational model.

When enough measurements are available to characterize the current fire, a forecast is made. This forecast is then constantly updated with new incoming data. If, for example, a door is opened or glazing breaks, and the ventilation conditions change drastically, the sensor measurements will steer the computational model towards capturing the new conditions. With this technology, fire fighters could act upon forecast behaviour.

This paper presents one of the first steps in this direction. Data is assimilated into a simple zone model, and forecasts of the fire development are made. Positive lead times are reported here for the first time. These results are an important step towards the forecast of fire dynamics to assist the emergency response. Together with the application to CFD within the same PhD thesis, the previous thesis of Cowlard on flame spread predictions and the most recent paper by Koo et al. on probabilistic zone models, these establish the basis for technology for sensor assisted fire fighting. The envisioned system is not yet fit for operational purposes and further research is needed. The investigation of the effects of adding further realism in the fire scenarios will be the focus of future studies.

The paper can now be read at the website of Fire Safety Journal.

Note: A related paper is discussed in "FireGrid: An e-infrastructure for next-generation emergency response support"