Fire departments around the world may soon be out shopping for thumping subwoofers thanks to a new fire extinguisher invented by George Mason University undergrads, which uses nothing but low frequency bass to extinguish flames.
Engineering seniors Viet Tran and Seth Robertson now hold a preliminary patent application for their potentially revolutionary device.
The idea to fight fire with sound waves came when they were choosing a class project for Advanced Senior Design, where students produce and present a project for a final grade.
Tran and Robertson’s prototype was born through $600 of their own money and about as many trials. Their sound-wave device is free of toxic chemicals and eliminates collateral damage from sprinkler systems. If mounted on drones, it could improve safety for firefighters confronting large forest fires or urban blazes.
“Fire also is a huge issue in space,” Tran says.
“In space, extinguisher contents spread all over. But you can direct sound waves without gravity,” adds Robertson.
Initially, both students thought big speakers and high frequencies would douse a fire.
“But it’s low-frequency sounds—like the thump-thump bass in hip-hop that works,” says Tran, who joked that rappers like 50 Cent could probably douse a fire, and that hip-hop celebrity endorsements might be just the ticket to hawk their fire extinguisher.
No warm reception initially
It took time for their idea to catch on. In researching ideas for the class project, Tran learned that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was working on the concept, and that West Georgia University was working on “Prometheus.” So Tran thought, “Why don’t we be the ones to make it happen?”
Robertson and Tran’s classmates said, “You guys will make us fail.” Several professors also threw cold water on their idea before they convinced Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Brian Mark to mentor their project.
“My initial impression was that it wouldn’t work,” he says. “Some students take the safe path, but Viet and Seth took the higher-risk option.”
“They’re really special,” Mark says. “Viet is the idea man, and Seth is practical. At the final presentation, he wanted to use some fancy new presentation technology, but Seth convinced Tran to stick with a simple PowerPoint. They didn’t win the competition, but their presentation before a large audience was impressive.”
The inventors make a powerful team. They met as freshmen. Tran, an admitted sub-stellar student in high school, and a pitiful culinary pupil who couldn’t tell a zucchini from a cucumber, learned study discipline from Robertson, a student athlete who mastered time management.
“I’d wake up at six after we studied until three in the morning, and he’d already be at wrestling practice,” Tran says.
Robertson works for the Department of Defense while studying, and he’s been offered a permanent position at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Mass. Tran has an internship at Zodiac Aerospace in Dulles with the promise of a full-time job upon graduation.
Mason helped the inventors apply for a provisional patent.
“The provisional patent application they filed gives them a year to talk publicly about the invention, to test the market and to determine whether pursuing the patent makes sense,” says Carolyn Klenner, intellectual property paralegal, in Mason’s Office of Technology Transfer, who assisted them with the patent application.