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The conventional concept of how fires, and combustion in general, are initiated has involved a mechanism with free radical character. We have found that ionic mechanisms are the first to be involved, and that these set the pace and direction of free radical mechanistic events to follow.

In particular, we have been the first to observe that application of negative electrostatic fields to the initiating hot surface provides considerable enhancement of reaction rates; and that possibly the application of positive electrostatic charges may inhibit combustion proclivities. These have considerable implications for very important industrial hydrocarbon oxidations, and may have implications for firefighting and for inhibition (or promotion) of fire. There is particular significance to possibilities of production of alternatives to existing petroleum resources.

Important environmental considerations accrue in terms of the higher yields with fewer undesirable side reaction products for commercially important industrial hydrocarbon oxidations, and possibly for automobile engine performance. Improvements in firefighting have obviously important environmental ramifications. In all instances, there would be considerable economic advantages. There is also significant impact to the extent that these findings drastically alter the concepts of conventional combustion chemistry.

The Combustion Lab has conducted research in the following areas:

  • Mechanisms for initiation of fire.
  • Facilitation of combustion by application of negative electrostatic charge.
  • Improvement of industrially important combustion reactions with friendly environmental benefits.
  • Fire initiation and mitigation.

Current Research Project: Electrostatic (Anionic) Effects in Hot Surface Combustions. We have obtained results which show:

  • Initial phase of hot surface catalyzed oxidation is anionic, not free radical.
  • Oxygen radical anions abstract protons in a rapid initial step to form a carbanion and hydroxyl free radical In a second slow rate determining step, electron transfer from the carbanion to radical anion forms an alkyl free radical, which only then proceeds in oxidation sequences. Carbanion intermediacy provides lowered energy path. Free radical character determines ultimate product identity.
  • Seebeck effects govern adsorption and availability of oxygen radical anions at the hot surface. Negative charge effects facilitate oxidations. Inverse relationship exists between hydrocarbon hot surface ignitability and combustibility.
  • Surfaces with negative Seebeck effects facilitate selective oxidations, but require higher temperatures to effect ignition of fuels than is the case for positive Seebeck effect surfaces.
  • Transient rapidly moving incandescent “red spots” presage fuel ignition across the surface. This may provide a capability for detection of incipient stage of fire development, allowing triggering of extinguishing and alarm sounding before ignition actually occurs.
  • The Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) reaction is the basis of a multi-billion dollar industry whereby coal, charcoal, biomass and other carbonaceous materials can be oxidized using super-heated steam (at very high temperatures) to form carbon monoxide and hydrogen: C + H2O . CO + H2 . The CO is used in the “Oxo’ process to form industrially important aldehydes; hydrogen is an increasingly important fuel for use in emission free automobiles. Both the CO and hydrogen can be combined in an extension of the F-T process to form clean burning low-soot forming Diesel fuel with no sulfur or other polluting contaminants This clean Diesel fuel is at the moment somewhat more expensive than conventional Diesel; but as the world’s petroleum resources are dwindling with concomitant ever-increasing fuel prices at the pump, the F-T process derived fuel is becoming an ever more popular industrial route, with much cleaner burning fuel, and with several million barrels a year in current production and use. The F-T process is typically conducted at high temperatures. Our initial findings are that the process can be performed at much lower temperatures when large negative electrostatic charges are applied, which would considerably cheapen the reaction system.
  • The burning of hydrocarbon fuel air mixtures (particularly Diesel fuels) takes place at extremely high temperatures, resulting in concomitant combustion of nitrogen in the air to form highly toxic nitrogen oxides (“NOx”) which present serious environmental problems in automotive engine performance. We are looking at the possibility of application of electrostatic charges with a view toward decreasing engine temperatures and NOx emissions.
  • The following depict the mechanism for hot surface combustion, and of a typical example of improvement of combustion by application of negative chare effects.