A video showing 800,000 gallons of spilled Jim Beam being sucked into a fiery vortex was the inspiration for a study detailing a new form of fuel-spill cleanup.
The new study from University of Maryland researchers Huahua Xiao, Michael Gollner and Elaine Oran on fire whirls, which are tornadoes set ablaze through natural phenomena, suggests that these twisters might be more than “a strong, essentially uncontrollable threat to life, property and surrounding environments.”
One of the first sparks of inspiration for the study was a 2003 video from famed storm videographer Mike Theiss.
The aerial video shows a giant fire whirl engulfing a retention pond outside a Jim Beam warehouse in Bardstown. The fire was started after the warehouse was hit by lightning. The video was uploaded on YouTube in 2011.
Oran found the footage online in fall 2013 and shared it with her co-authors.
“We began to wonder whether there could be some use to fire whirls, not just to scare the bejeesus out of anyone near it,” Oran said. “It was pulling the fuel to it from the surface of the lake. We said, OK, let’s look at fire whirls on water. Maybe it would be useful for remediation.”
Oran and her colleagues re-created what they observed in Bardstown through small-scale laboratory experiments. The three researchers discovered that the center of their blue fire whirl, which was only a half-meter tall, measured a couple thousand degrees Celsius. In comparison, a common fuel fire typically measures 500 to 800 degrees Celsius less in temperature, Oran said.
What the difference in temperatures illustrates, Oran said, is how much faster and more efficient fire whirls are at burning fuel.
“It could have great uses, but we have to figure out what it is and how to control it,” Oran said.
The University of Maryland study was published online on Aug. 4 in the peer-reviewed journal .
Oran said she hopes to expand research into fire whirls by conducting larger-scale experiments.
A representative for Jim Beam declined to comment on the video or the study.
Fernando Alfonso III: 859-231-1324, @fernalfonso