Catching Fire: The Science Behind The Burn

 
Our Interconnected Planet

Today is September 11th, a day none of us will never forget. We continue to honor the fallen brothers, the heroes of 911.  This is also the perfect day to highlight the important research being done by NIST, The National Institute of Standards and Technology, Fire Research Division. They did exhaustive research and issued extensive reports on the World Trade Center disaster post 911.

Closer to home, in 2015, a home fire was reported every 86 seconds and a civilian fire related death occurred every 20 hours and 40 minutes. In addition, 68,085 firefighter injuries were reported in 2015. Given these facts, it is scarcely a surprise that fire is an area of much scientific research and interest.

All of this is why we should all be grateful for the work being done by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The mission of NIST Fire Research Division is to develop, verify, and utilize measurements and predictive methods to quantify the behavior of fire and means to reduce the impact of fire on people, property, and the environment. It’s scientific research at its finest because, at its core, this research literally saves lives. Mellanox has installed our FDR switches with the NIST as they research to discover new and safer ways to fight blazes. Mellanox’s solution of InfiniBand switches deliver the highest performance and port density with complete fabric management solutions to enable compute clusters and converged data centers to operate at any scale while reducing operational costs and infrastructure complexity. In part, because of our solutions, researchers at the NIST are able to stick to the business of fire research; running complex analytics and experimental data over a robust data center  ̶  all with the goal of ultimately saving lives and protecting property.

In speaking with fire researchers at the NIST, it turns out that they develop software named the Fire Dynamics Simulator that engineers and architects the world over can use to help fire prevention and to better understand fire behavior in buildings. This software, improved daily, encompasses fire modeling which means that while designing a building, engineers and architects can best place sprinklers to combat any fire that may happen. Moreover, they can also learn from simulations how fire and smoke will behave in a specific structure. A second piece of software that NIST calls Smokeview visualizes the results of the fire modeling software, a powerful visual tool that enables professionals to visually understanding the complex behavior of fire and smoke. And with the additional computer capacity they recently obtained, NIST researchers plan on modeling larger cases and performing simulations more often.

Check out this simulation of methane burning. Despite needing about 20 million grid cells, the computation is made practical by using just 1 CPU core for each of 128 meshes meaning such a complicated simulation takes about one day to run. Simulations such as these used to take the computational power of a massive supercomputer. These days, because of solutions like those from Mellanox, a moderately sized network can handle the demands. And it is cases like this that helps NIST justify the use of a fast network to communicate results between meshes. Cases like this to investigate combustion algorithms. There are also simulations of smoke and fire that show investigators how fire behaves.

I confess that this important research is intensely personal to me. My partner is an assistant fire chief with a large metropolitan fire department in Virginia. Over the span of his career, he has had burning roofs crash in on him and even had a house explode just as he stepped outside the kill zone. The force of that blast flung him yards like a rag doll as rubble rained down. It was later described to me as a fiery inferno from hell. He has pulled countless victims out of burning buildings and successfully resituated beloved family pets. The worst times have been when he has had to tell a parent that a child has died, nothing is worse, nothing comes close.

And even with the heart-breaking heroism of 911 forever etched in our hearts, it is precisely because of the quiet, determined valor and bravery associated with firefighters, the reason they remain mostly unsung. Burning roofs, exploding houses, restarting a heart, saving beloved puppies…just another day at the office for the more than 1,160, 000 brotherhood who put their lives on the line every day.

The work being done by the NIST is welcome news. Knowing that there is on-going research to assist firemen and professionals in better understanding how smoke and fire behave means they can put out blazes faster and with less personal risk. It is programs like these that are helping to advance knowledge in how fire behaves and make buildings safer while saving more lives and protecting property.

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About Julie M. Dibene

Julieanne DiBene is the Senior Director of Marketing Communications at Mellanox. Prior to this, she was the Director of Marketing Communications with Micrel Inc., a semiconductor manufacturer. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from San Jose State University.

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