Rocket-Powered Innovation

A new propulsion design inspired fire suppression systems that work faster using less water

Much attention is given to the feats of innovation that allow humans to live in space and robotic explorers to beam never-before-seen images back to Earth. In the background, however, is a technology that makes it all possible: rockets.

Marshall Space Flight Center is at the heart of NASA’s rocketry and spacecraft propulsion efforts, with a legacy of success stretching back to the Saturn rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts into space.

Vortex combustion technology
ORBITEC developed vortex combustion technology for NASA, representing a new approach to rocket engine design and leading to advancements in fire suppression systems by the company’s subsidiary, HMA Fire.

Today, Marshall continues to improve rocket and spacecraft propulsion, and some of the advancements are being made with the help of private industry partners. The efforts have led not only to new propulsion technologies, but to terrestrial benefits in seemingly unrelated fields—in this case, firefighting.

From Combustion to Suppression

Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC) of Madison, Wisconsin has worked with NASA on a range of space exploration needs. Through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, ORBITEC has collaborated with NASA to develop products including a cool-wall vortex combustion chamber. The design feeds liquid or gas oxidizer into the chamber in a way that confines the mixing and burning of the propellant. This keeps the walls free from volatile thermal stresses and increases the durability and lifespan of the engine.

Rory Groonwald, chief engineer for ORBITEC subsidiary HMA Fire, saw potential in ORBITEC’s propulsion technologies beyond space exploration.

Working with the US Air Force Fire Rescue Research Group, HMA had developed fire suppression systems that utilized ultra-high pressure (UHP) for firefighting. Collaborating with its partners, HMA incorporated elements derived from ORBITEC’s propulsion work into its design for fire suppression.

Seconds to Extinguish

HMA’s propulsion-inspired design is only one of the benefits the company’s UHP suppression systems provide to firefighters. The systems introduce an approach to fire suppression that is complementary to—and in some cases superior to—traditional firefighting methods.

“The firefighting industry still has a mentality of ‘surround and drown’—the more water you put around a fire, the faster the fire will go out,” Groonwald says. “But that is not necessarily true.”

Fire suppression systems extinguishing fire
HMA’s NASA-enhanced, ultra-high pressure fire suppression systems can extinguish a range of fire situations in significantly less time and using less suppressant than traditional low-pressure, high-volume systems.

One series of tests using empty houses at Vandenberg Air Force Base compared an HMA system with a 20-gallon-per-minute, 1,400 pound-per-square-inch (psi) discharge capability (at the pump) to a standard 100-gallon-per-minute, 125 psi hand line. The standard line extinguished a set fire in a living room in one minute and 45 seconds using 220 gallons of water. The HMA system extinguished an identical fire in 17.3 seconds using 13.6 gallons.

“[The HMA system] sucked the life out of the fire and did it faster than anything I’ve ever seen before,” says Devin Misiewicz, captain of the Vandenberg Air Force Base Fire Department.

The key to the HMA system is the pressure of its discharge, which results in smaller droplets dispersed on the fire. HMA’s UHP approach also quickly reduces the temperature around a blaze and results in less smoke. “What this does is create a safer environment for the firefighters to conduct an offensive suppression attack on the fire,” says Groonwald.

Commercially available in a range of platforms, HMA’s Hydrus systems are drawing experts’ attention. The US military employed four UHP units at a forward operating base near Kabul in Afghanistan to help combat fuel fires and firebomb attacks. The Navy utilizes the systems in the Middle East, and 12 Air Force bases in the United States employ the technology.

Alaska is also examining the systems for remote towns, where they can be used by operators without firefighting training. Several municipal fire departments in the US and Mexico are also now using the NASA-enhanced systems, as are the Montana and Nevada bureaus of land management, meaning cities and towns nationwide and beyond are already benefiting from another example of space exploration technology improving daily life.

To learn more about this NASA spinoff, read the original article from Spinoff 2011.