Scientists at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering say they’ve discovered a new type of fire whirl that could make handling oil spills a lot cleaner. As Gizmodo reports, the so-called “blue whirl” burns while leaving behind little to no soot.

A fire whirl (otherwise known as a fire tornado, firenado, or fire devil) occurs when hot air rises quickly from the ground during a wildfire. The awe-inspiring event can be extremely dangerous in nature, but the University of Maryland researchers believe the power of this new type of fire whirl can be harnessed for good.

In their paper published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) [PDF], the authors describe how the blue whirl’s mesmerizing color makes it notable. “The yellow color [in conventional fire whirls] is due to radiating soot particles, which form when there is not enough oxygen to burn the fuel completely,” paper co-author Elaine Oran said in a press statement. “Blue in the whirl indicates there is enough oxygen for complete combustion, which means less or no soot, and is therefore a cleaner burn.” This cleaner burn could have significant applications outside the lab. 

The researchers initially wanted to see how regular fire whirls behave on water. Their suspicion was that fire whirls would be better at burning oil spilled on the ocean’s surface than traditional flames were. Their findings backed them up: Fire whirls burn hotter while sucking up fuel away from the surface. If they could find a way to produce a blue whirl on a larger scale, it would clean up spills more efficiently while leaving behind less airborne pollutants. What's even more promising is that blue whirls burn without the chaotic turbulence of yellow flame tornadoes—at least in the lab. You can watch the blue fire ignite in the video below.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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