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Published:December 2nd, 2014 11:00 EST
NASA Explores the Concept of Starting a Fire with Water

NASA Explores the Concept of Starting a Fire with Water

By Ron G Anselm

What is the first thought you get when you see something on fire that is not supposed to be on fire? Go get water and get it fast to put that fire out.  That`s the common sense approach here on Earth at least to most people but not on the Internal Space Station where NASA is experimenting with water to start a fire. The complete opposite approach to anything we have learned here on this planet.

To understand the principles of fire let`s explore a brief and little bit about the bright but very hot chemical process of combustion. Fire is exactly that, the rapid combustion of material exothermic chemical process. We watch wood burn in our fireplace on a cold winters evening and after a few minutes depending on the kind of wood you are burning we see that wood turn to ash, you see a house fire and after the fire fighters put out the blaze there is nothing there but a lot of charred material. That is the rapid combustion of material.

When fire burns it releases heat, light and various reaction products. The flame is the visible portion of the fire. I f the fire gets hot enough the gasses the fire is producing may product what is known as plasma and become ionized. The color of the flame will depend what is actually brining.

The physical properties of a fire consist of oxygen, heat and fuel and all three of these properties are in sync which causes a chain reaction thus a fire. If you take any one of these physical properties away they fire cannot sustain. There are various ways to fight a fire which again depends on what is burning but the main way we all think of first is to fight a fire with water to put it out.

What NASA is doing on the International Space Station is the complete opposite; astronauts are using a certain kind of water known as supercritical water " to start a fire. This type of experiment and fire has some interesting properties associated with it. A little bit about the science of this type of water.

Water becomes supercritical when it compressed to a pressure of 217 atmospheres and heated above 373 degrees Celsius Above that so-called critical point, ordinary H2O transforms into something that is neither solid, liquid, nor gas.  It`s more of a liquid-like gas. " (

When this supercritical water is mixed or added to any organic material a chemical process takes place known as oxidation.  The neat thing about this process is it is actually a form of fire that is burning with the flame.

This could turn out if approved by NASA to be an experiment that has a variety of good uses back here on Earth. One of those uses is the problem with sewage. Cities, ships at sea farms all produce tons of sewage and instead of dumping that unwanted and gross sewage in the ocean or wherever this process could prove to take care of it right where it stands so to speak.

Mike Hicks of the Glenn Research Center in Ohio commented on supercritical water by saying, "When we push a wet waste stream above the critical point, supercritical water breaks the bonds of the hydrocarbons. Then, they can react with oxygen." In other words, the slurry ignites. Sometimes, hotspots in the slurry produce visible flame, but usually not.  "This is a relatively clean form of burning that produces pure water and carbon dioxide, but none of the toxic products of ordinary fire." (Hicks, M.)

So why is this experiment being performed on the International Space Station and not in some laboratory back here on Earth? Mike Hicks explained this by saying, "The International Space Station provides a unique microgravity lab for studying the properties of supercritical water. (Hicks, M.)

Part of the supercritical water experiment is the testing of salt. Above the critical point, any salts dissolved in water quickly precipitate out.  If this happens in a reactor vessel, the metallic components of the vessel become coated with salt and they begin to corrode. (

And we know how salt can corrode metal and eventually it turns to rust that eats away that metal. Whether it`s your car when rock salt is put on roads to dissolve ice or underway at sea and seawater which is loaded with salt corrodes the sailing vessel this is a problem that has been going on for a very long time.

Mike Hicks commented on this, "In any realistic waste stream, we have to learn how to deal with salt. It`s a major technological hurdle.  By studying supercritical water without the complicating effects of gravity, we can learn how precipitating salts behave on a very fundamental level.  We might even be able to figure out how to draw salt away from corrosion-sensitive components." (Hicks, M.)

So NASA is taking salt at a fundamental level and adding the supercritical water experiment to try to add technological advancements to the problem of corrosion and salt.


Wikipedia, (2014) Fire, ( Retrieved 2014.

Starting Fire with Water, (2014) Science NewsScience@NASA Headline News, ( Retrieved 2014.

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