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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Bang goes the Borders: Science Festival

Dr Carvel, ready to begin.
Saturday 20th September 2014 was the fourth "Bang goes the Borders" science festival, held at St Mary's School in Melrose, in the Scottish Borders. Each year the festival hosts researchers and scientists from several universities, schools and companies who present a variety of hands-on experiments, workshops and some demonstration experiments. Universities present included Heriot-Watt University (one of the event sponsors), University of Edinburgh, Newcastle University, and Glasgow University. Glasgow Science Centre were there too.

For the first time, a member of the fire research team from Edinburgh (me) was there to do some fiery demonstrations. We've been involved in a few 'public engagement' events in the past, but I've never tried to do fire experiments, outside, in such a way as to be entertaining, interesting, and safe. For this, my first attempt, the weather was very much on my side. There was little in the way of wind and the light rain earlier in the day had ensured that the grass around where I was going to be burning things was nicely damp.

The question I had to address in advance was what sort of fire experiments I could do to engage primary age kids (6-12 years old) and their parents? Having happened upon a quantity of 'Swedish Torches' (logs with cuts in them) in a local garden centre earlier in the summer, I decided to use these as the basis of my presentation: 

Question: Logs don't burn by themselves, 
so why do they burn by themselves when 
all that's been done to them is a few cuts?

The answer involves explaining the relationship between fire, air and heat. In other words, the classic 'fire triangle', although I don't think I used that phrase while explaining things.

With two chunky logs quite happily burning away beside me, I asked the audience if they thought a inch thick stick of wood would burn by itself. Most of the kids said no, and they were right. I tried setting fire to the stick with a blowtorch and it self-extinguished as soon as the burner was removed. What I discovered at that point is that primary age kids think blowtorches are awesome. If I'd just randomly set things on fire with the blowtorch for half an hour, they'd have been happy. Anyway, I had three progressively thinner sticks with me as well. Do they burn by themselves? Most of the audience thought the two thinner sticks would burn in isolation. They were wrong. So why does a chunky log burn, but a thin stick doesn't? With a bit of hinting, the kids guessed that the answer was something to do with heat. Result.

Now to wow them with the effects of airflow on a fire. Spinning a small pool of heptane on a turntable has little effect on the burning behaviour, but put a wire mesh around it and spin, and you get a fire tornado. Simple and effective. There were literally gasps of excitement from the younger members of the audience.

Now, having explained the influences variations in airflow and heat flow can have on a fire's burning behaviour, we were ready for the big fire test of the day. I had two identical wooden cribs (a regular arrangement of wooden sticks), about 20cm x 20cm square and about 15cm high. One was going to be burning outside, the other was placed inside a 40cm x 40cm x 40cm wooden box; the lower half of the front of the box was open. I ignited both with the blowtorch and got them to about the same stage of burning. We were going to have a race.

I ran the demos three times during the day and each time about half of the audience thought the 'outside crib' was going to grow faster, while the other half thought the 'inside crib' was going to win the race.

Each time we ran the race, the outside crib showed early promise, clearly being the bigger fire after about three minutes, due to a plentiful supply of air. Meanwhile the inside crib was growing at a slower rate, due to restricted airflow, but retaining its heat for future use. After about five minutes of burning, the inside crib grew rapidly in size and clearly overtook the outside crib in terms of fire size. Then the box went to flashover and decisively won the race.

(Following flashover, the back of the box fell off, venting and cooling the fire; this was intentional and made the fire much easier to extinguish after the experiment...)

These fires were watched by a good number of interested and well behaved kids; perhaps the fire safety engineers or fire scientists of the future! I hope they learned something. Certainly they were entertained.

The greatest feedback I had on the day was from a boy of about 8 years old who shouted across the field at me towards the end of the day:
"Hey mister! Great show this morning! I'll come back again next year..."
I think I might go again next year. I wonder what different tests I can do?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Concrete in Fire Forum, Autumn 2014

The BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering is happy to announce that next installment of the Concrete in Fire Forum, in conjunction with The Concrete Society, will be hosted at the University of Edinburgh.

When: 10.30 am Monday 17th November 2014 (we will finish around 4pm)
Where: Seminar room, Centre for Science at Extreme Conditions (CSEC), University of Edinburgh, Erskine Williamson Building, The King's Buildings, Mayfield Road, Edinburgh, EH9 3JZ, United Kingdom
               Location info:
Cost: £Free 

What is being presented?
  • Use of expert elicitation for probabilistic analysis of concrete structures in fire (Ioanna Ioannou, UCL)
  • Closed-form formulation of travelling fires in large enclosures and comparison of the peak temperature location along concrete and steel beams (Egle Rackauskaite, Imperial)
  • The Study of Concrete in Fire: An Overview of the Thermal Exposure (Cristian Maluk, Edinburgh)
  • Introducing The IFE Special Interest Group on Fire Resistance (Panos Kotsovinos, Arup)
  • Fire Tests for Tunnel Linings (Tom Lennon, BRE)
  • Punching shear of flat reinforced-concrete slabs under fire conditions (Holly Smith, Edinburgh)
  • Title to be confirmed (Nicolas Pinoteau/Pierre Pimienta, CSTB, France) 
Can I come? 

Yes you can, please email for more details and to signify interest in the event.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Edinburgh Researchers Featured in USDA Forest Service Video Spotlight

Researchers from the Fire Group, involved in a project on wildland fire behavior in the context of hazardous fuel reduction treatments, have recently been featured in a video put together by the USDA Forest Service. The video highlights several aspects of the experimental fire which was carried out in New Jersey, USA earlier this year. Particular focus is put on efforts to better understand and characterize the generation of firebrands in a wildland fire. This aspect of the project is of significant interest to Edinburgh researchers, and associated work aimed at understanding the ignition of structures due to firebrand accumulation is being carried out in the Rushbrook Fire Laboratory, under the guidance of Prof. Albert Simeoni, with the support of the American Wood Council.


Our experiment in NJ featured today in the Wildfire Today blog.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Playing with Fire - Towers of Babel

One night over cocktails almost two years ago Dr Cecilia Abecassis-Empis and Jo Rush started talking about what they respectively do; Cecilia, an academic at the BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering; and Jo, a freelance theatre director.  The conversation, like many, quickly moved onto the causes of the 9/11 structural collapses of the World Trade Centre (WTC) towers. Cecilia’s and Luke Bisby’s (who over-hearing the conversation could not help but chime in) frustration that the scientific reasoning and underlying messages around these events were not being heard sparked an idea in the creative recesses of Jo’s mind: Towers of Babel was born.

Jo commissioned a play-wright friend to start coming up with ideas and plot lines around the research into the WTC tower collapses, and explore the reasons why the message was not being heard by engineers and the public alike. Conversations over dinner, skype, and at conferences kept the juices flowing and the more questions were answered about “whose fault was it?”, “why has nothing changed?”, and “what other risks are out there?”, the more the play took its initial form. 

However we needed to know whether the characters rang true and whether the message that we wanted to say was coming across. We gave to the play to the actors. At a read-through at the University of Edinburgh in July 2014 five actors along with the play-wright, Jo, and a few academics examined every nuance of story and character. It was a success, and with some final polishing off a final script would be ready.

This is where we are now, with the play-wright looking at the changes and editing the script, and the director looking to expose the play to the public audience.  We are hoping to be previewing the work sometime early next year – with plans to take it to a full production soon afterwards.  Watch this space.


“Towers of Babel is an exciting new play that explores culpability, collusion, and the risks we take every day. It draws on specific research by the University of Edinburgh into why and how the World Trade Centre towers fell on 9/11, and asks why the engineering community, in general, is not acting upon the significant gaps in our understanding of fire exposed by this terrible event. Using this specific engineering failure as its focus, the play engages with wider questions about the blame culture in our society, the engineering choices made between financial cost and human cost, and how engineers quantify, manage and articulate risk to the wider public.”

For more details about any aspect of the show please contact David Rush:

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Fire Group at the IIE Scotland 2nd Postgraduate Conference

A strong Fire Group delegation presented their work yesterday at the IIE Scotland 2nd Postgraduate Conference. The annual event is organized by the Institutes for Infrastructure & Environment from Heriot-Watt University and The University of Edinburgh.

Many congratulations to Cristian Maluk, Mohamed Kiari, Zafiris Triantafyllidis, and Eric Mueller for being awarded in the categories of best paper/presentation and poster.

1st place
C. Maluk, L.A. Bisby, G.P. Terrasi
Fire Resistance Test on Precast CFRP Pretensioned Slabs
Joint 2nd place
M. Kiari, T. Stratford, L. Bisby
New Design of FRP Internal Reinforcement for Elevated Temperatures
Z. Triantafyllidis, L. Bisby
Flexural Behaviour of Steel I-Beams Protected with Fibre-Reinforced Intumescent Coatings at Ambient Temperature

1st place
E. Mueller, W. Mell, A. Simeoni
Large Eddy Simulation of Forest Canopy Flow with Applications to Wildland Fire

Cristian Maluk

Mohamed Kiari

Zafiris Triantafyllidis

Eric Mueller