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June 2, 2021

002 - Smouldering megafires with Guillermo Rein

002 - Smouldering megafires with Guillermo Rein

Guillermo Rein is a recipient of ERC Consildator Grant on smouldering megafires. The most challenging source of founding, meant for the projects that can truly change the world. And his HAZE project is just like that - to study a phenomenon that accounts for more than 13% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions and takes the lives of thousands (millions?) of people every year.

In this episode you will learn about the haze fire chemistry and emissions, they ways to detect them and the directions for the whole discipline of the fire science.


---- LinkedIn Discussion thread ----
https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6807701866659540992

---- Links ----
Learn about the Hazelab at https://www.imperial.ac.uk/hazelab

Learn about cellular automata here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1540748920306490?via%3Dihub

Learn about peat fire emissions in here: 
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1540748920306490?via%3Dihub

Follow Guillermo on Twitter @GuillermoRein and @ImperialHazelab

Transcript
Wojciech Wgrzyski:

If I asked you to imagine a really big fire, what comes to your mind? Is it flames and encapsulating huge building, maybe an oil refinery, or maybe even the whole city? Is the big part of a forest burning? Well, after today's episode, I hope I'll help you widen this perspective. And together with my guest Professor Guillermo Rein of Imperial College London, we're gonna discuss a completely different threat. Much bigger and much more treacherous. The smoldering peat fires, this kind of fires produce insane amounts of pollutants are responsible for deadly haze episodes in Southeast Asia. And now or occur all over the world in even in the Arctic Circle. This type of combustion is very interesting, and Guillermo is gonna uncover the physics and chemistry of that. He's gonna talk about the ways we can use to detect these fires, and how his group has used some clever techniques to study them and model them. All of this was done within the ERC Consolidator grant, which will also mentioned in here. And yeah, Guillermo has also some great advice to young academics and to the whole field of fire science. So I hope there are people listening because this this advices are priceless. I must say I was really stressed before this interview because I have literally never interviewed a person in my life and this first time I do it's distinguished professor from ICL. With the I think it went quite well and Guillermo was super nice and his science is astonishing. And I'm absolutely sure you will truly love this interview. And whatever your role is in the fire science or engineering, and even if you have never dealt with a smoldering fire in your life, I'm absolutely sure and being exposed to this new and fascinating world of combustion will will definitely be interesting and beneficial to you. Anyway, let's not prolong this anymore. Let's spin the intro and jump into the interview. Welcome to the fire science show. My name is Wojciech Wegrzynski and I will be your host. Hello, everybody, and welcome to Episode Two of fire science Show. I'm here today with my first guest, Professor Guillermo Rein of Imperial College London. Guillermo, I'm really happy to have you here us my first guest.

Guillermo Rein:

Hello, Wojciech, it's a joy, and an honor to be invited to your podcast.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

Thanks, man. Thanks, man. Appreciate that. There's so many subjects we can speak on, Guillermo. I mean, there's so much research topics we're touching together. And your group is doing amazing fire science in all ends of the fire science. But there's one thing that I've asked you here for and I really want to hear about, and that's your ERC grant on on haze fires. It is called reducing the burden of

smoldering wildfires:

an Earth scale challenge. Can you tell the listeners a bit more about this subject?

Guillermo Rein:

Yeah, so thank you for asking about these. This grant this ERC consolidator grant a has been and continues to be in very important in my academic career. The topic of this grant is to study to understand to prevent and to fight smoldering wildfires. A smoldering these these typically ignored phase of combustion, which doesn't have a flame. Because it doesn't have a flame there, the human biases to say well then doesn't have a flame is no burning. Who cares about it? Let's go and do something else. But these these fires, smoldering fires are very persistent. They're very easy to ignite. They're very difficult to suppress, and they can last for weeks, sometimes for months, sometimes centuries. Burning and consuming fuel and releasing heat and releasing pollutants.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

I must say I was on the ignorant side as well. When I've met you, for me, it was just the slow fires. And as we discussed it sometimes the slow fires are not exciting. I mean, they're even difficult to observe because it's like difficult to capture them, thank God for the time-lapse techniques... But then then I've learned the burden on the whole planet this fires have. And that was something that completely changed my perspective.

Guillermo Rein:

You're absolutely right, smouldering doesn't have a flame because of the chemistry. The chemistry is what we call it the heterogeneous chemistry because it involves reactants that are in the gas phase, oxygen, and in the solid phase, like the the char of the carbon in the soil. And these chemical details completely changes the behavior and completely change the physics and the thermofluids and energy release. So these fires are very slow, exactly what you're saying I, it makes me laugh, because I always go around saying these are the largest fires on earth. And I make the point. But you always tell me and it makes me laugh. And you're absolutely right. It's also this slowest fires on Earth. They are not in a hurry. But they're also very difficult to suppress. And that's the enigmatic and fascinating part of these fires. They're not exotic and no one cares about is quite the opposite. They are they are so important in the natural environment and in the built environment. That is almost like the elephant in the room of fire science very often. They've been ignored for a really long time. And there is not one single good reason for them to ignore.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

Your investigation is specifically on the peat fires. What exactly is this peat?

Guillermo Rein:

Yeah, so when when we look into the literature, and around the world, we realize that the expression of the smoldering that is most concerning, is not when a sofa is smoldering or when the paper storage of a factory smoldering, but is when actually nature...natural fuels are burning in a wildfire. And typically, you can look into this and many fuels that are reactive and they are porous, for example, the trees, they actually smoulder, they don't burn with a flame, they rarely burn with a flame, they actually what they do is smoulder. But if you look into the soil, there is one type of soil that is very rich in carbon, so it's actually not organic is or is not an inorganic or mineral soils. And organic carbonicious soil like peats, for example, that when they burn they burn with without a flame, they smoulder. And that is an incredible amount of fuel. If you think about the density of carbon in the soil is 100 times higher than the density of carbon in a tree. And these soils one of them the most important one is called peat. Peat soils in peatlands is a type of soil that is formed when there is a lot of water in the soil most of the time, not always there is a lot of water. And it means that the biomass, the plants, can they die, they don't degrade, they just become part of the soil by losing a little bit of its weight. And most of the carbon remains in the soil. And this is how nature has been doing carbon storage for 1000s and millions of years.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

That that's fascinating. This type of fuel like a porous fuel that that promotes heterogeneous combustion, smoldering, I mean, it's not only peat, I mean, in buildings, we can find some of that as well. And in built environment, I made the list. It's many kinds of wood, coal, litter on our waste plants that that's possibly as well, source of a similar fire threat, as well as fibers and all kinds of thermosetting polymers. So this this kind of combustion is, is actually quite popular, if you can say that...in the world. So I assume that even though you're focused on the in the largest and most, most dangerous fires, the mega fires in peatlands, I think there is still quite a huge potential to jump some of the technology devised for this into built environment now.

Guillermo Rein:

Yeah, so smoldering fires, also concern as you're saying, in the building in our homes and in our factories. Actually, that's how I started to study smoldering. I did my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, was a project funded by NASA, because NASA is very concerned about fires in a spacecraft. Particularly they go to Mars, because for three years, I think is one going into going back. They cannot call their firefighters, they cannot evacuate. And it's very messy to distinguish in our spacecraft. So NASA relies on the single most important layer of protection, which is prevention, which is don't have a fire to begin with. And they've been really good at preventing flaming fires. But NASA was growing concerns that smoldering fires could actually be more frequent in the absence of gravity, that on Earth. And on Earth, we have a lot of smoldering. And what my PhD thesis actually contributed to, is to see that the lack of gravity actually makes smoldering, more stable. So NASA is more concerned about a smoldering fire inside a spacecraft that it is concerned about a flaming fire. So then when I graduated, I wanted to go down to Earth, so to speak for Well, unfortunately, NASA is not going to hire me at that time NASA was going down, it was not going up like now and we didn't have Space X. And I thought, well, I want to have a job on the planet. And I started to look into other smoldering hazards. And that's when I discover beet fires, and also coal fires. And also another one that is quite big. For example, abandoned coal mines that have been mined and the face of a walls, hundreds and hundreds of kilometers square are coal. Coal is a porous reactive medium. And because they are galleries going deep, this means this coal is exposed to oxygen for the first time in millions of years. And they start to burn. And when he does it, it doesn't die with a flame it actually does smoldering. And he's really really difficult to suppress this fire, some of them actually have never been suppressed. They've been burning for hundreds of years.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

Now, I've written down that you mentioned in some of your talks a 6000 year old fire in Australia, in the Burning Mountain reserves. That's that's actually fascinating to have. Fire older than many of all this humankind's written reports of human activity. Fascinating.

Guillermo Rein:

That that is the longest continuously burning fire. We see burns today I visited five years ago now has more five meters and I have to go back and move five meters from what I was five years ago. Impossible to suppress literally impossible to suppress and geologists not this is not actually fire engineers. Geologists say that there is clear evidence of this fire burning 6000 meters behind (6 kilometers behind). Which means that at least it was burned. At least it was burning 6000 years ago, probably some some people say half a million years ago. And this is important because this happens in Australia, not far from Sydney. This means that at least the British cannot be claimed to be the cause of this. This is older than the British presence in the island.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

Probably the danger is in some million years, it will reach Europe. So we better get prepared for that coming. Well, anyway, I think we should get prepared for other monsters. I mean, I was shocked when I learned the scale of emissions of these peat fires, did you did you study in your grant. Then I realized, I mean, we are talking about fires that can cover square kilometres of an area. Right? They burn through. It's not like submillimetre scale of a flame that you normally have where the reactions are ocurring, like, it can be a meter off of the ground that's, that's going through reactions at the same time. So if you start thinking about amount of mass involved in a singular filer at the same time, that's unprecedent. I mean, if that was a flaming combustion, you'd like see it on the news the whole day, because that would be the biggest fire we've seen. And yet it's so many of them happening at the same time. Can you can you tell the listeners a bit more on this aspect of this mega fires?

Guillermo Rein:

Yeah, so it's smoldering peat fires, the ones particular that are so large that we can see in the satellite. They are mega fires. And I claim based on our research, that these are the largest fires on Earth, not largest seeing the speed of the flames or the height of the flames or how scary it is to see them, but are the largest because when after the fire has passed, when you calculate or you measure the amount of fuel that has burned, these fires are about 1000 times more mass than flaming fires that we see in California and in Portugal or in the Mediterranean. These are absolute monsters, I mean, the the order of magnitude higher impact of smoldering bigger, smoldering fires compared to big flaming fires, made the first scientists that measure believe that their measurements were wrong. This when they published they finally, make sure that they recheck the calculations. And they said, No, no, it's not that we are wrong. It's that study was this big. He was a very famous paper in Nature in the year 2002. Very, very famous paper. It actually caught my attention and got me into this field, where they measure the 1999 fires in Southeast Asia, most of them in islands, belonging to Indonesia, but not only Indonesia. And they realize that those fires alone, mostly smoldering, are counted accounted for at least 13% equivalent to the anthropogenic emissions of the whole planet. That 13% ... that single fire are getting out the game to account any of the other fires. I'm already happening in Siberia, in Alaska, in North America, in any other people and around the world, just the fires of 1999 in Southeast Asia, accounted for 13% of the anthropogenic emissions. 13% is a very, very large number, it accounts for the whole footprint of the European Union. 13%. and European Union is very concerned about its own footprint and carbon emissions. Or if you want to know the equivalent, the whole worldwide fleet of cars and trucks,

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

I wanted to ask you if you included Britain in that, but let's not go there.

Guillermo Rein:

The time the calculation was done the UK was part of Europe.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

I think that is also a footprint that would be similar to the global carbon production from from concrete. So another major source of carbon. And that's definitely there's definitely a huge number if we consider that anthropogenic emissions are the ones that put the planet out of balance, right? It's the one that we care about. And I find it fascinating because, like, from a naive point of view, I think it would be easier to put down fires in Indonesia, rather than resign from cars by the whole of humanity, which actually from from the scientific point of view may not be the thing.

Guillermo Rein:

But that is the engineering mind, Wojciech, I agree with you is like we all want a good thing for the planet, maybe we should start focusing on the biggest one that we can do something about, for example, not letting Indonesia or Southeast Asia burn every three summers. Now the drama about these massive footprint, a emissions carbon emissions of smoldering fires, is that is the calculation that I told you that 13% which by the way, on average, every single year, taking into account all fires is about 15. Every single year, it's not just every three years 13% because there are massive fires in in the Arctic in Siberia, etc. Is that the IPCC which is these are the world cleverest scientists, atmospheric and climate scientists, they don't take into account these fires, because they don't know how to take them into account. For for two reasons. One is none of the members of the IPCC know much about fire. And definitely not smoldering fires. And the second one is that when they go to the literature, they just see, not they don't see many papers on his moldering because the scientific output has been quiet reduced in this study of smoldering compared to this study of flaming

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

it takes a lot of time to study smoldering combustion (because it's slow). Anyway, when you said that they didn't believe the numbers when they when they calculated when I was reading some of your papers on emissions from from his fires. When I was doing my review on on modeling fires in environment, I've stumbled across the data. And I found it astounding in terms of what emitted in this in this fires. The PM2.5 emissions were like, 0.44 of gram per gram of emission from a gram fuel. The carbon monoxide was like 21% of the emission and that that's insane. Then all kinds of organic compounds like phenols, benzene, toluene, furans, that I've summarized them all and they received like 0.06 gram per gram. So in the end, combining them all this, like 30% of the mass burned, is becoming one of the most dangerous pollutants you can have in the air after a fire. And like, that means you burn the kilogram of peat and you've received 300 grams of that thing, that that's enormous emissions. To put that into perspective, when I designe the road tunnel, which is meant to be used by vehicles and well people using vehicles. And we care about the air quality near to the place where we exhaust the air from the from the tunnel, because we need to maintain ventilation. So there's comfort, there's visibility in the tunnel, when I would receive emissions higher than I don't know, three, maybe four grams per second (GRAMS!) I would be very unhappy because it would be very challenging to get rid of that in a way that does not affect the surrounding people in any way. Four grams, and here, one one kilogram of haze ...that's what? two liters of it?? That's a handful of that and yet you have square kilometers of that burning together. So the combined mass of that is insane. What is happening with it, I mean it does not disappear?

Guillermo Rein:

No it is not. So the reason why they are so pollutant is precisely the nature of smoldering is very incomplete. Combustion reaction incomplete in the sense that it is very far from ideal. And ideal combustion is an hydrocarbon combines with oxygen and he produces mostly co2 on water and this is what you will study in the university. Smoldering could not be farther from ideal conditions, it actually most of the fuel is still remains in the gas phase. This means that if you were to get these pollutants that you're talking about, and you will be able to burn them, you will get energy and claim on the air will be cleaner, which is, by the way, is a possible route that some minds are trying to come up with. So it's smouldering is very is very polluting, it actually incapacitates people at their homes very fast, because it's so polluting. Haze episodes that happened in Southeast Asia, or it happened elsewhere as well in California. Most recently, these are horrible, because it's not that there is a plume of toxic gases and that you avoid is that the plume has diluted into the atmosphere covering the whole town or the whole city or the whole region. And this is the air that you're breathing the right inside your house or outside their house for a week. So they emergency the health emergency crisis that come out of a haze episode are humongous. We're talking about millions of excess deaths in Southeast Asia every single time haze episode happens is very, very dramatic. And unless there are scientists measuring these, these these unfortunately, doesn't make it into the into the top of the news.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

If you if you put it into perspective, like we are high fiving each other that less people die in building fires than from slipping on the stairs or, or some other ridiculous reasons people die for. Because we are quite successful as the fire safety engineering community for preventing deaths in fires. But at the same time, it seems if we are in a way responsible for not solving the issue yet. This monster is taking like lives in millions and not taking hostages while doing that. So that's astounding. And it's also not the a regional problem, right? I mean, it's not. It's not that there's a fire in Indonesia or Siberia or, or California and it just covers the neighboring town. If you contaminate the whole volume of air in, let's say 20-30 kilometer radius, the winds will not dilute that the winds will move it further right. It's not cleaning that easily as a plume of normal fire.

Guillermo Rein:

It takes months to clean a haze episode, you require massive winds for days and days and days to take that cloud up into the atmosphere because one of the other dramatic consequences of a smouldering being incomplete is also incomplete in the amount of energy releases in amount of thermal energy releases, it means that the plume of smoldering fire is not very hot. It's actually very close to being almost cold, it means that he doesn't have buoyancy, so it doesn't go up high up like you see this smouldering, you see the flaming fires of California. And the plume is really hot. It's very buoyant. It goes literally like a jet into the atmosphere very high up and it mixes some passes, sometimes the clouds, smoldering goes into that smoldering, he falls back, it doesn't go higher than the height of a building. And then it goes down again into the floor. So this is this is where people are. So flaming fire pollutes very high up into the atmosphere, and smoldering fire pollutes very, very low in the terrestrial environments.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

I think that's one of the challenges. You only can stop this from happening or maybe suppress it while it's small. Because once it grows and releases that amount of pollutants, it's there's no way you can you can manage that. Like of course you cannot manage the the plumes of, of normal fires like flaming fires, but it's again, we're talking about scale 1000 times more mass involved in this in this plume

Guillermo Rein:

It is that, you are absolutely right. This is engineering mind right, at work. What you're saying is 100% what I agree with is this fires when they become large, there is no point at trying to suppress them. They are beyond human capabilities to suppress. People can still try to suppress especially because otherwise citizens are going to be very angry with the government. So they can still do kind of PR kind of show helicopters and probably get this fires are so large in Southeast Asia, it's too late. You have to wait for the rain system. You have to reflood he peatlands this land which for example, in the history of peat fires has only been done twice once in North America. They reflooded the peat plains in North Carolina in the largest farm North Carolina had ever seen. And the other one is in New Zealand, there was a small peatlane that could burn next to a town that had to evacuate the whole town. And for three months, they reflooded the pitlane by diverting streams of nearby rivers into the peatland and then put it back. Most people cannot afford to fight a smoldering fire. So it is absolutely essential that they are detected not early but very early this what we call very early detection systems or alert systems. And we don't have detection systems for a smoldering because for a very, very long time, people thought that if they did take the flaming fire, they would be fine. But what happens is that the chemical signature, or the infrared signature, or visual signature of the smoldering is very different to flaming. So technology and understanding of how to take a flaming fire does not detect a smoldering fire. So we were failing at being even early in detection, we, we were allowing these fires go to a size that could not be suppressed, we were at the mercy of of the elements, so to speak, in in suffering the consequences.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

So you need to literally smell them. Before you can find them.

Guillermo Rein:

Yeah, that's what you just said is one of the working packages of the work that we are doing, which is we are smelling them. But now with our human nose, which by the way, is an incredible chemical device. We are measuring this with an FTIR, which is a Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. And we are analyzing the components that are in the smoke. And then we do ratio of components. And we identify what we call the chemical signature, which is the composition, the key composition, or if you want the key smell of a smouldering smoke, which is very, very different to the smoke that comes when they peat smoulders or when a tree burns in a flame.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

This olfacometric research is always fascinating. And you know what, I'm always fascinated how, how these people get experienced with, with a particular type of fire experiments, suddenly achieved this olfacometric ability to distinguish a chemical compound by by smell. And I remember this time, when we were burning a facade we with a colleague from your lab, Matt, and we were... there was discussion if we use the retarded polyethylene core or not retarded, and there was a technician saying, of course, it's retarded, it smells like church. And we're like, oh, wow, that's like, that's an impressive ability to, to investigate the chemical structure of, of the polymer inside a sandwich panel. By by using your nose, maybe you should train dogs for for sniffing, smoldering fires.

Guillermo Rein:

I can I can tell you two things about that would you one is is us. So I've been in the lab burning smoldering for hundreds and 1000s of hours and the students even more time, right? It's experiment takes at least five hours. That's what we have fast experiments. So experiments take more than the whole day. So you can imagine the amount of smoldering smoke of all types of materials polyurethane foam, wood powder, that cold char, peat. When I landed in Indonesia in 2018. I learned it and I promise I could smell the smoldering fires. People were looking at me saying we're talking about there is no as far as like, I'm telling you, I can smell they are coming from the wind. They're coming from the west. And when we will look into the data on the satellite, we could actually see smoldering fires no far from from the capital from Jakarta. So I promise I could smell them. I was trained to smell them. And the other one is when when we have visitors to the lab is a very nice experience to have someone come into your lab for the first time. There are two types of visitors that we can spot their nationality right away. If they arrive, and they say it It smells like my whiskey. These people are from Scotland. Because in Scotland, there is one way to give flavor to the whiskey which is too sxmoulder peat, is actually what's called a peaty whiskey. But you have to smoulder it. If you flame that peat, it doesn't smell right. It's always like okay, you're from Scotland....and you Oh... how do you know. And the other one is, if they say "Oh, it smells like my home. "These are Irish, because in Ireland for a really long time, they were using peat as fuel to heat up their houses. So their houses were warm, but they also had this smell of peat fires, which is a very... It's actually for peat have to say the smell is pleasant and not unpleasant as a polymer. It is very sweet. And it has a very specific scent. So now you're Irish.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

I'm pretty sure we can distinguish a Scottish person without exposing them to peat fires. And what disturbs me again is that Matt one said that my coffee smells like like like your laboratory and now I'm not sure if you referred to the pleasant smell of Ireland or one from the Scotland.

Guillermo Rein:

Yeah, exactly. Yeah, you need to ask for clarification.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

That will require some some scientific research. So you said you can smell them. But what are the ways you can actually like find them before they grow big? Can you like use satellite to take a look around?

Unknown:

Okay, so that's what we're working on is the actually one of the last pieces of work that we're doing for the ERC grants, which is to create pathways to technologies, ERC doesn't require that we develop technology ourselves, but that we develop the science that would enable a technology later on by someone. One of the pathways that we are developing, which is quite mature now, is the ability to detect smoldering, when he saw is small that we will not see it obviously by plume or by our eyes. So there are two ways that we are doing this one is infrared, infrared is electromagnetic radiation that is coming because the there is a fire there is heat. And obviously, we prefer to do this with a with satellites, because this is how currently many wildfires are being detected. But when we look into the literature, it is very clear that the satellites cannot see smoldering it's very controversial what we are, I'm telling you right now, okay, and we are having many scientific conversations because there is a group of people from the satellite community that say, of course, we can see a smoldering, but they cannot show the evidence that they do. It's almost like our belief, I believe that my satellite can see a smoldering when we as experts in smouldering, we asked for the evidence, we don't see the evidence that they can see smoldering, they believe they're seen as smoldering, or they see such big smoldering fires are almost about to start flaming There are so large. So our scientific standpoint right now is satellites cannot see smouldering. But we don't know why. There are many reasons why this could happen could be the algorithm in the satellite, it could be the sensor, it could be that this confused by thermal anomalies or something like this. So, what we are doing is we are in the lab observing the infrared from a true smoldering fire, we are observing with the Secondly, the same sensor, a true flaming fire. And we are analyzing the spectra. The spectra is the ranges of of waves of the radiation coming from one on the other. And then we are comparing these with the sensors that are in the satellite. And we this will be very interesting work because at least we will be able to say why we think scientifically speaking that current satellites cannot see smoldering, and what needs to change in the satellite for the satellite to be able to see a smoldering

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

That's fascinating. I think they also burn at much lower surface temperature, right, what would be the surface temperature,

Unknown:

So is that so because smouldering is incomplete combustion and it releases less heat, it means that is not as hot. So the temperature is significantly lower, we're talking about peak temperatures in the in the 600 Celsius, or maybe 900 Celsius, these are much lower than the big temperatures in a flame, we change the order of 1200 to 1600 Celsius. So because radiation goes to a fourth power of the temperature, it means that the radiation that comes from our flame is orders of magnitude larger than the radiation that comes from a smoldering and also is not just the magnitude of radiation is the color of the radiation because the higher the temperature, the shorter is the wavelength, right. So it's almost like the type of type, the type of light that you see from a flame is very different from the type of light, although it's not like light it is radiation, The type of radiation that you see from smoldering and the other characteristic of smoldering that we are exploiting for the protection is the chemical nature. As you already mentioned, there is ample evidence and we have contributed to these, that the gases coming out of smoldering combustion are very different...drastically different than flaming. And so we are developing the chemical signature that would allow, for example, a handheld device, a simple device that you can buy online for a few 100 pounds, that a firefighter or an authority can have allows you to measure the ratio of three important species for example, co2, co2, and methane. And the specific ratio of these three species can tell you this where we are aiming can tell you if there is a small leak or not, it can tell you the strength of the smoldering it can tell you is not only the smoldering, but is smoldering that has just started a few days ago, for example, because the age of the fire has a different type of emissions. And it may be actually even tell you how far away it is. By also combining these, for example, with the presence of oxygen and other ratios. And this is a technology that we dream of developing we cannot develop it as we speak right now because the science is missing. But one of the within a few months hopefully, objectives of ERC grant with haze that we have is to develop a science for this.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

That's actually fascinating, because here the slowness of the fire is good for you. As you mentioned, you want to detect them early. But by early mean like in the first week or something. So it's it doesn't have to be like continuous measurement that spans over the whole Siberia. It's enough if there's trained personnel that can drive a patrol route every week and and capture the measurements, right so and that could be sufficient to at least identify if the number of fires is growing, for example, and more preparedness has to be put in place. That's great.

Guillermo Rein:

Good point Wojciech, do we say very early, but we mean, days, three days, four days, maybe a week? You're absolutely right. But what is happening right now is that no one is doing anything for months. So of course, when they discover the fire is so large that the satellite can see the plume, which is very dramatic. I mean, there is this very famous image for 1999 fires in Southeast Asia with a plume detected by NASA satellites, is so large, you cannot see in that wavelength the the islands of Indonesia, they literally the whole region is incredible. NASA could not believe what they were

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

That is a quite large plume indeed, like, looking at and yeah, you're correct. I mean, when you have to shut down Singapore airport because of haze, it's kind of too late to detect the haze 5000 kilometers away,

Guillermo Rein:

even a kid can detect it by that time, you know,

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

And I think Europeans are slightly under estimating the size of Indonesia. And what has happened in the Arctic? Tell me I mean, like 10 years ago, I would never considered Siberia being a venue for immense fires, I would not consider fires in Greenland be an issue and are north and Canada behind the Arctic Circle. So that's kind of scary when you multiply that by your emissions. I mean, the 30% 13% that you have mentioned before, was from Indonesia fires, right?

Unknown:

Yeah. So in Southeast Asia is not the only place where various smoldering fires, it just happens that as we speak right now, this is where the, the evidence is strongest, that these fires are humongous. They're the largest forest on Earth. But if you look into the history of fire phenomena, you would see, for example, that Moscow once had a haze phenomena that lasted several weeks, actually, not only once it happened in the 60s in the 70s. And in the 80s. St. Pettersburg, when I was studying the topic, how to haze event that actually it almost made them about quite some of the suburbs of St. Petersburg, and United States in Alaska had seen haze events and these haze events, all of them relate to smoldering happen nearby for weeks, and if not months. So it's not just the peatlands in the in the tropical belt, which south southeast Asia is part of it is also what we call the boreal belt, which is, in particular is Canada is Alaska is north of the United States as well, part of it is actually even Europe, Europe, UK, for example, has Spitfires. The thing is the population of the UK is so large, and there's so many people and so many resources that this virus, although they can be actually quite large, they are dealt with within a week. But they are a peat fires in the UK there are peatfires in the Netherlands, the largest wildfire in the Netherlands last year, was the peat fire which flame for three days, he was extinguish. And then for the next three weeks, firefighters were keep calling being called back every two days. Because the fire was coming back. Because for three weeks it is smolder, and he left his massive scar in the pitlane of the forest. Whereas the firefighters didn't know what the fire was coming from they had they had dealt with it. So these two this is smoldering behavior, which is quite well known in the literature is is is present is moving north. The activity of smoldering is starting to appear in places where it was rare. To the point for example, in the last five years, we have a significant amount of Arctic fires. These are fires are burning inside the Arctic Circle, which is meant to be very cold most of the year. And what we are seeing is that the summer season when the soil and the vegetation is not frozen, and the water is in a liquid estate, they actually start to burn. And these fires are very strange, actually, their behavior is very strange. It doesn't behave at all, like the fires in the Mediterranean. They do have flames that are flaming fires, but they also leave behind a lot of smoldering. And because there is no one there, no one that takes them, even if they detect it, there is no one who cares about the fire presence. And actually even sending in firefighters is actually really difficult because you don't have transport and you don't have water. So these are, but we can now observe them with the satellite. So for the last few years, we have these incredible data set of Arctic fires starting developing and naturally ending in the Arctic. And the number of them is unprecedented. It is an exponential increase of the number of Arctic fires. And when you look into the reasons why we could have an increase or a decrease of wildfires, we typically explain these based on three changes. So usually if you have a change in the fire behavior, is because there has been a change of something and the three changes that we consider these are, well, there is a changing population, you see that people are moving into the rural areas and are causing fires, or people are leaving their rural areas and are live in the forest unattended and actually starts to become more flammable. The other one it there could be a land use change. In the sense people are abandoning farmlands or there is start to leave the forest, the forest like it happens in them in the Amazon. And the third one is the climate is changing, the climate is changing is actually bringing drought is bringing higher temperatures or the opposite and making things wet, or the opposite. The only way we can explain these unprecedented and long term changes in the Arctic wildfire behavior is by the third one. It is the only change that can explain what has happened is not because people are coming in or out of the Arctic is not because people are changing the use of the forests in the Arctic is because is the only way we can explain it is because the climate is changing is actually bringing higher temperatures to the, to the forest to the to disrupt the grasslands and the peatlands of the Arctic, and is making them more flammable.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

So so that's like, very disturbing feedback loop being born. As the climate warms, more fires occure in the peatlands. And that leads to this humungous emissions of greenhouse gases. Because you mentioned there's there's methane, there's there's carbon monoxide, I mean, there's obviously a lot of co2 as well happening,

Guillermo Rein:

These much larger number of fires in the Arctic are releasing carbon that was not meant to be released by nature or otherwise, which means that it's creating more emissions in the atmosphere of carbon, which means that is accelerating climate change. And climate change is accelerating the number of fires in some regions of the wall, among them the Arctic. So this is what we call a positive feedback mechanism between the smoldering and wildfires and the climate. And again, is that effect feedback mechanism that is not accounted for in any atmospheric climate model. It is not accounted for by the IPCC, mostly because they don't even know how to bring it into their models, because they are not experts in the topic in their committees. And because when they go into literature, they don't see much knowledge base.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

Do you know of any evidence of this fires existing pre satellite era? Like do this pit fire signatures can be find in like ice cores from from Arctic or anywhere? Or? Or it's something really new?

Guillermo Rein:

Actually, that's a really good question. There is evidence that peat fires have been happening for a long time, even before people recollect this. You can also look into newspapers. When there is a haze event, the local newspaper reported as this very strange cloud of smoke that no one knows where it comes from, because you don't see the origin. And that it stays with them for a very long time and lasts for asthma, the kids and the elderly are poorly. The source of evidence that we have found is not ice core, but peat cores. So you can drill peat. Peat is a record of atmospheric conditions over 1000s of years. And you look when you look into the same the layers of the peat, and you analyze it the same way that scientists analyze ice core. So we did these we partner with soil scientists from Italy. And we leave experiments in the lab. And then we send our peat cores to them, and they analyze the layers of the peat core. And they were fascinated to discover that smoldering fire was leaving a signature, chemical signature, that previously they thought it was a sandstorm. So it was a signature that they have seen in the past, they could not understand what was going on with the signature. And they thought, well, this is very strange, it must be that there was a sandstorm and I cannot explain the accumulation of mineral content in the layer of peat while all the is carbon disappearing. And the reason why that actually was burning a fire.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

That's fascinating because the all is left is ssh right when everything else is is really...

Unknown:

the most powerful is monitoring fires, they lift just the ash and all the carbon goes into the atmosphere, as complex molecule not as co2 as very complex molecules, as you were saying,

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

When when you mentioned it, IPCC is not accounting for this emissions. I actually think that that may not be a case, I think it may be accounted, but not in the anthropogenic emissions but in the background. And if that would be the case, if it was a part of the background, and we could actually remove a significant part of the background that's, that's actually a beautiful thing because it improves our chances against not destroying the planet for our children

Guillermo Rein:

indeed. Now, but it's important because what you just said, which I agree with is again, the engineering mind. This is how many engineer thinks, right we think of how to solve a problem. Whereas very often, when you look into the science, the science limit itself off saying, I've observed something, there is a problem. And now everybody has to change their behavior. Whereas an engineer, which is absolutely not need to have engineers to be intervening everywhere, we identify a problem. And then we always and define intervention, right? Well, there is an excess of carbon in the atmosphere, then let's capture extra carbon for the atmosphere. Let's let's do what the business of nature has been for millennia, but faster.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

That's I mean, it's fascinating that you have taken a fire engineering project from a spacecraft, put it on earth realized it's actually devastating and and try to find a way to get to minimize it. That truly isn't ERC level of an idea. I wouldn't think smoldering fires that are on the ERC idea. But now now I clearly see that it's, that's that's impressive, man, that that's really impressive. I want to just get about the other thing. You said you're creating pathways for technology. I know you have done some amazing with the students, you have done some amazing computer modeling, like implementing cellular automata. To model that. Are there any lessons for the fire safety engineering community to learn from this? Because it's, I mean, that's a part of modeling that I would never touch with my background, because it's so complex.

Unknown:

So that they it's quite an interesting question. Thank you Wojciech. So yes, we've used these, these new computational approach to simulate how a fire develops, which is based on cellular automata. This is an approach that is unusual for an engineer, this was maybe more for a computer scientist or a physicist. But for an engineer, we believe in the laws of nature. In particular, we believe in the laws of thermodynamics, and we conserve energy and we conserve mass. But cellular automata is an approach that is literally fascinating. It uses very simple rules, which means computational is very unexpensive runs extremely fast. But the combination of these simple rules which just transfer information, that's what they do, they can simulate very complex behavior, very complex behavior. So what we are doing is realizing that we are our models that conserve mass energy, and momentum cannot be apply to understand the behavior of a smoldering fire that is burning over 1000s of kilometres, no matter that I would love to do this. And no matter that, maybe some crazy, maybe Bill Gates will give me access to his 1000s of high performance computing is that it's a brute force that is just not worth it. We are not ready to do this. And we don't want to do this. So we're changing approach. Instead of going from conservation laws we are doing to transfer of information. Cellular automata. And I we can claim that we're working on this for three years, four years now, we can claim success, we can claim that we have developed extremely interesting, very fast models of smoldering that is allowing us to understand is modeling at a scale that we have never studied before.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

It's fascinating. I've read the papers by by Nieves (Fernandez-Anez) and I was truly amazed by how can you take a such a simple idea and develop it into such a powerful tool. But yeah, that that's what that's what engineers do. I wanted to ask you about one more thing. How does one study mega fire from Kensington London?

Unknown:

Yeah, it's true. Well, I managed to convince the panel ERC a because our approach a is is multi scale, in the sense that we we study the micro scale, which is the chemistry and then we study the meso scale, which is how benchtop experiment of peat fires will go and then. And then we study the macroscale, which is the true scale where accidents and fires happening in Southeast Asia. And the combination of these three scales, not just one, but the three of them, through high fidelity experiments and advanced modeling. And the combination of experience and modeling is what we've been working on for the last many years to do allows us to understand what smouldering is; how it ignites, how it spreads, what it means how it is to suppress, their emissions and infrared emissions in the chemistry and develop the pathways of how to how to develop detection, how to be able to detect them and monitor them in the satellite, how to account for the carbon emissions globally, how to train firefighters into how to deploy their resources, how to suppress them exceeded all these are technologies that we are developing by combining the scales and the approaches. And this, I mean, it's not that we convinced the panel, which was a feast of its own; is that is we've we've done it. I'm happy to say that this is not the work ahead, it is actually the work that we've done already.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

But I mean, it's fascinating because so many people get turned down from pursuing their scientific dreams and , most ambitious goals in research, because they believe they do not have facilities shooted for that. And basically, you have attempted and you have done development in in satellite imaging technology from your basement and you can see me in surrounding that's, that's astounding how much a mind can truly achieve when, when you're focused on when you know, what you look for. And having these decoupled into into the scales, as you mentioned, that that's also a beautiful idea. Because even even if you were not able to go to Indonesia, and do it in macroscale, the fact that you have moved the science forward in in meso-scale and and, and small scale, it already is promising that someone could take it forward. So So yeah, and I think the lesson here is that never think you're limited by by your facilities all all comes down to to your head and the cleverest way you can, you can use it to build science.

Guillermo Rein:

For me, there are three lessons in when you're describing Wojciech, the first one, absolutely essential is the human component is I have these beautiful team, I am biased because it's my team. But they are incredible. They're incredibly smart. They are incredibly hardworking, and it's literally a joy to work with them. And the fact that they they have done so well, it is a testament to to the challenges that we've been able to accomplish by working together. The second was people is very important in success of science. And for example, your team Wojciech and you yourself are also incredible people to work with. The second one is I don't believe in experiments that are expensive. This is just not particular. I don't know why it seems maybe because I come from a Spain where scientific facilities are not overwhelming in size. So I prefer to travel more.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

You have the biggest ... Spain has the biggest atrium, that they have a 700 meter long tunnel in Gijon to burn stuff in. It's it's fascinating story. Sorry.

Guillermo Rein:

No, but it's true. It's true that in some of the cases that you're mentioning are large, no, but what I mean is as a scientific signature, I don't believe in experiments that are expensive. Not not that I don't do them, because I might actually I've been involved in expensive experiments. But it's not what I prefer to be. So I always prefer to have experiments are simple in nature that they can break. That is there is no drama, if I if I read camera burns, that there's no drama if I miss the opportunity to observe a fire. And these give us tremendous flexibility. And it makes us not been afraid of failing in the first experiments or failing the first models, because the consequences are not dramatic. So then it takes a stress away from the team and allows the team to enjoy what they're doing. And when you enjoy what you're doing and you have a good team, then beautiful things can happen. And the last thing is something very important that is related to ERC. ERC as you would see, it doesn't find many things. And it actually has the point of founding things that are meant to be impossible. But that is they happen to be possible, there will be a breakthrough. Right. This is a signature of ERC. So if you come up with an idea that is obviously going to work, then yes, ERC will say that's fantastic, congratulations. But it's so clear that he's going to work that someone else will fund it. Right. Whereas if you go to ERC with a crazy idea to the point that actually your colleagues read it some some of my colleagues were reading my proposals, they were saying chemo, this will never work. I said okay, that's it. I got it. That's an ERC topic. That is very smart people who think this will never work is their opinion against my intent. And this is what ERC wants to try crazy things that if they were to work, there will be a breakthrough.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

Niels Bohr once said about the an idea in atomic physics of Wolfgang Pauli. Is it crazy enough? Because they literally believe that if you're in quantum physics, and the idea is does not sound absolutely crazy, it means it's just wrong. It must, it must be crazy. Otherwise it will not work. And you know what, while preparing this this interview, I had this word written down in my in my notebook, in bold, and the word says, OBSERVE. And that's, that's one thing that I've, I've learned from you and your team and doing experiments with you. The power of observation, the learning through through experiencing things, I think many many If people miss this aspect of science, maybe it's because the funds are limited, maybe because you're pushed to publish things. And you know, running an experiment just to witness it, and learn and be able to improve the experiments. So one day, you can truly measure, I think this aspect of the fire science is often missing. And I wish more of us would have the courage to just take take it slowly and learn by observing right,

Guillermo Rein:

and I 100% agree with you. I think that observing, which is the number one tool of science, right. When science was invented by humans, many, many, many, many millions of years ago, it was observing, it was just literally being able to, to realize that you have seen something that is worth communicating to someone else, even maybe yourself in your diary. And very often what we see is that someone a young researcher arrives, wants to be a scientist, is very impressed by these incredible experiments are happening here and there. And these very compute complex set of measurements and predictions, and they didn't serve one too straight going into that was, the value of first observing and reporting your observations, as you as you described, is, is the first step in science, it has to be done. And in fire science, because in many ways, we are an infant discipline in the sense that we haven't done our basic work for way too long. I mean, it's not our fault, particularly, maybe it's the fault of our founding parents. There is a lot of things that need to be observed first, before we can actually do complex measurements and complex modeling.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

Fantastic. If I can just take the last five minutes of your time and ask you one one final thing. One thing that stands out in your group is is the amazing people that you that you take with you on this on this amazing journey into fire science, and you seem to have a great hands on turning promising students into World Class fire scientists. And I know, I know, there will be many, many students, PhD students, postdocs listening to this. What advice such a good supervisor like you can give to young people pursuing a career into in fire science?

Unknown:

Wow, that's a great question as well, Wojciech, there are so many, I would say the most important one, it happened to me and I can see that happening to many of my students is very often fire scientists didn't know that fire science existed until literally days before making them application for a PhD, literally, is like the field of fire science as decided to remain secret to a very small set of of people in the planet and making a point out of this, whereas it's actually the opposite is an absolutely fascinating topic. And I'm biased. I'm a fire scientist. But I use evidence people are fascinated by flame, people are very worried about the safety of environment and their buildings, smoke plumes, chemical reactions. All the topics of fire science is absolutely fascinating. So we should not keep these hidden for a subset of people, we should actually grow the awareness that he deserves. And we will get much larger audiences, which will mean that at some point, authorities would be having a knowledge of fire science and when you have a committee of people setting the budget in big organizations, and these people have knowledge of fire science, then guess what happens that the budget dedicated to fire science grows.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

That's definitely a thing and sharing this with with your colleagues and and families and participating in science fairs, reaching out of this community we have definitely appreciated. And that's one of the things that I want to achieve with with this project as well. So I take your advice, as well. Well, Guillermo, I'm so happy to have you here and thankful for participating. I want to mention that this is difficult to say that the having a grant is is an achievement because it shouldn't be... Our field is toxic because of that we find that getting money for research as an achievement, but getting ERC grant is truly an achievement in a career. And yesterday we've celebrated 10,000 ERC grants being given in Europe and I think yours is the only one touching the fire science. You have a very small club of ERC beneficiaries in fire science.

Unknown:

And unfortunately, Wojciech, it is true of these things In great scientists, very few unfortunately study fire. I'm not the only one. But it's true that I think it's a handful and not just fire I make some even even including combustion science, which is the fundamental model of foresight. I would say Obviously, I'm really happy and delighted by ERC has changed my career, not because of the amount of money which is quite nice, is because of the quality of the money it allows you to do to so many things. It's incredible. I've never had our grant that is this flexible, and this convenient, and this will support it. But he came, you can imagine that is not that I submitted one day. And then I got it took four years of a lot of hard work and a lot of revisions and a lot of rejections. But now I can look back into those four years and saying that every single effort was worth it. I consider ERC a the review process that they have is extremely mature, and is very consistent in the sense that every single time I submitted my proposal, the comments from the multiple reviewers. And I think at the end, there was like almost 30 reviewers over the years that had looked into my proposal. They were all consistent Wojciech. This is incredible. How can you have 30 beautiful panel minds reading a proposal that is growing and modifying in time, and all of them independently being consistent in which should be the direction of a proposal to make it stronger. I've never seen that before in in all the hundreds of proposals that I've sent around

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

or not even in in reviews for papers. I mean, there's always this reviewer two. That's that's, that's problematic.

Unknown:

Okay, so yeah, that will be a summary. I never saw a Reviwer #2 in ERC, not even close.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

I would love to encourage all the all the bright minds of fire science to try and moral funding like this we get for the community and for people, the bigger the achievements will be and the better the safer. The fire safer The world will be. So Guillermo, thank you so much for your time. I wish you all the best in in your final year of this of this grant. And I mean, I hope they're coming out of pandemic, we'll we'll help you achieve the dreams are you going to Indonesia again,

Unknown:

I wish I wish definitely Indonesia, Thailand, Indonesia is one of the top trips, scientists trips, scientific trips or when the pandemic is over.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

That's so that's so cool. But boy, thank

Unknown:

you very much for the opportunity to be here with you in your podcast. I think you are amazing at creating this and putting your time and your all your enthusiasm is contagious. So the fact that you believe in this makes a lot of people believe in for science. So thank you for that. And you have all our support.

Wojciech Wgrzyski:

Let's build it together. And it's gonna be great. Thanks a lot and see you around. Thank you so much. Wow, this one hour interview has passed so quickly. I didn't even have a chance to ask him about his research and suppressing the p[eat fires. Well, I guess that' the material for anothe episode. I hope you enjoyed thi lot. Guillermo research i always fascinating. And for m personally, the research on bi fires on Pete mega fires, i truly remarkable. And befor meeting Hazelab and Gu llermo I've actually nev r realized such a threat exis s and it can be so dangerous o such an immense number f people. Now, now I am aware. N w I see this type of fir s happening all over the plane . And potentially they will al o happen in Poland because we al o had peatlands, so yea , definitely something to kn w about and be aware of. If y u want to learn more abo t Guillermo resurgent h s fascinating group Imperial ha e lab, you should jump into the r website imperial.ac.uk\haz lab , and you definitely want o follow him on twitter at @G illermoRein, and the Imperial Ha elab at @Imperialhazelab. in th show notes, I'm going to drop links to the papers mentioned n this episode, and also droppe the link to them website of azelab so you get an easier acc ss to that. And I urge you to ake a look on it. I also welco e you to sign to the newslette of the fire science show, which you can find at the top of the s ow description. And subscri e on your favorite podcast ap . So you never miss an episod . There's one more from th first three to listen to talk ith Dr. Gabriele Vigne, which is as interesting this as this one. And then expect the new pisodes every Wednesday. So than you for being here. I apprec ate you and all the kind words t at came to me before lunching th s podcast. I hope I didn't fail your expectations and yo truly enjoyed this episode and you will enjoy further, even more. So, thank you very much or being here and see you a ound.