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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Study or Gamble, but not both - 2nd annual Christmas tree fire test

An esteemed colleague had generously donated a Christmas tree to the scientific cause for the 2nd annual Christmas tree fire test. It had been used in the living room during the winter celebrations.

The tree was a Nordmann Fir of conical shape, 1.5 m tall and 0.9 m diameter at the bottom. It weighted 4.74 kg and was in dry conditions (measured in the oven at ~8% moisture content in dry base) after having spent one month not watered inside a warm living room.

Before conducting the experiment, fire experts were asked to bet on the peak heat release rate (pHRR) and the burning time (t_b). We recorded 28 guesses (£1 was collected per guess). A person with no research experience and no previous knowledge on fire dynamics (an international lawyer) was asked to provide a guess and act as control. NOTE: This required explaining the concept of HRR in layman terms, after which the control quantified the pHRR in terms of the equivalent number of burning matches.

Significant spread was recorded in the guesses. pHHR guesses ranged from 400 and 2300 kW, with average at 1173 kW. Guesses for t_b ranged from 15 to 377 s, with an average of 120 s. Two people provided guesses for pHRR but not for t_b, so they were assigned the average t_b value from the other participants.

Figure 1. Sequence of images, from left to right: The first day (early December 2010) when it was brought to the living room. Just seconds before ignition when the tree was inside the medium scale calorimeter. Fire spread over the tree about 40 s after ignition. Remains left after the test.

The tree was ignited putting a small household candle next to the tree trunk at 1/3 of the height from the base. The HRR was measured using oxygen consumption calorimetry (corrected for CO and CO2 production). Figure 2 shows the HRR as a function of time. The growth of the fire is very fast, reaching a peak near 700 kW, 45 s after candle ignition.  The decay is also fast, and reduces the fire to 50 kW 60 s after the peak. The peak value (pHRR) was 697 kW ± 25 kW. And the burning time t_b was 146 s ± 24 s. This was measured by visual observation using the video of the test and defined as the period going from first observed ignition of a tree element (between 0 and 24 s after candle ignition) to the end of significant flaming (between 146 s and 170 s).

Figure 2. Evolution of the HRR (power) as a function of time measured by oxygen consumption calorimetry.The ranges of observed times for the ignition of first tree element and end of flaming are indicated.

A short video of the test can be seen below (NOTE: it starts 30 s after ignition and lasts for 55 s):

Measurements and guesses are plotted in Figure 3. There was only one guess falling within the measured result range. This person won the bet. For the quantification of how close a guess was to the measurements, the Euclidean distance was calculated, nondimensionalizing each guess by the measurement. The resulting average distance is 0.97, with minimum 0.1 and maximum 2.12. The control was at a distance of 0.26, well below the average and closer to the result than 89% of the participants.

Figure 3. Scatter plot of the guesses for the Peak HRR and the burning time. Measurements and experimental uncertainty are in blue. Histograms of guesses for each quantity are included.

The participants were grouped in three sets: Academics, Postdocs and Students. The years each participant has been researching fire was estimated and plotted against the distance of each guess (see Figure 4). There is a positive correlation of distance with experience. Students and postdocs show a similar large slope, but Academics are a distinct group from the rest and have a smaller slope.

Figure 4. Non-dimensional Euclidean distance from guess to measurements vs. years in fire research of each participants. Blue line is the trend of the Student and Postdoc populations.

Upon seeing this data, one could conclude that the longer you stay in research, the less you earn. And, study or gamble, but not both!

1 comment:

Christine said...

Does N-D distance to measurement correlate with laboratory experience at all?