Friday, 18 November 2016

Fire is a bad master: acceptance speech of the IAWF Early Career Award

16th of November, Long Beach, California, 2nd International Smoke Symposium,
International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF).

by Dr Guillermo Rein, Imperial College London.

Guillermo (left) receives the award from Dr Tom Zimmerman,
the President of the
International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF).

I am honoured for receiving the Early Career Award and I am thankful to the Board of Directors and the IAWF for having chosen me. I also would like to thank my students, collaborators, sponsors and my family; if I did something of merit, it was because of their abundant support all the way.

Our mission, the mission of all of us attending the conference, is dual. First to understand fire, and then apply this knowledge to protect the habitants of Earth; namely humans, and Nature itself.

You see. I am an engineer, and my other affiliation is with fire safety in buildings where all fires are unwanted. It is easier: all fire is evil; it must be suppressed and not be given any change to come back to the building.

But fire in the forest can be a force for the good and only becomes evil when unbalance. Indeed, wildfires are important elements of Nature. Not only fire contributes since millions of years ago in shaping most ecosystems on Earth, but fire plays essential roles supporting life through the regulation of atmospheric oxygen, the carbon cycle, and the climate.

This obligatory balance between excess and absence must be attained through the management of fire, and makes the wildfire problem more complex, more important and more fascinating to solve.

Fire science requires more decades of fruitful work and international collaborations to mature and establish a complete understanding of the phenomena and its management. And I am delighted to see the IAWF is at the fore front of these efforts at an international scale, and has become the home where practitioners and researchers come together to talk and share.

I would like to finish with the old Finnish saying:
Fire is a good servant but a bad master”.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Constructive role of Peer Review in science

I am fortunate to have been interviewed by Publons on my views about peer review and scientific progress.
I took the opportunity to highlight that peer review has an essential constructive role in science, it is not only about setting a minimum standard. I also complimented the important role of editors, the elephant in the room of peer review.

The full Q&A can be read here: [download pdf file].

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Fancy dresses and flaws in flammability requirements

After reading a sign in the local charity shop, I watched this excellent 2015 BBC One investigation piece on textile flammability requirements for children's fancy dresses. It was produced after the daughter of TV presenter Claudia Winkleman was badly injured in 2014 because her fancy Halloween dress got on fire. 

BBC One found that fancy dresses had been classified as children toys and not as children’s clothing for fire safety requirements. Toys have to pass a much less onerous flammability test than children’s clothing. Hence the danger, because fancy dresses are in close proximity to the body and can be very flammable due to the fluffy arrangements of synthetic and thin fabrics.

"Flammable fancy dress clothing", watch it here.

"Flammable fancy dress clothing" by BBC One.

There are three things that I would like to highlight about this case:

1) This safety flaw in the flammability requirements is born from the wrong trade classification of the consumer product, not from a lack of understanding of the fire hazard. Now that this is known, it should be easy to rectify.

2) The response of national retailers in 2015 was overwhelming. The BBC lists the responses of 12 major companies (eg, John Lewis, Mothercare, Toys ‘R’ Us) which revisited the safety of their products. Some of them (Fara Kids, for example, see photo from our local shop below) even stopped selling fancy dresses altogether.

3) The industry response has been towards increasing flammability requirements of fancy dresses and match the higher requirements of children’s nightwear. I say this because there are current pressures asking to downgrade flammability requirements of consumer products (eg, sofas in California).

Photo of the sign in our local charity shop.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Acceptance Speech of the 2016 Lund Award

27th of September, Denver, Colorado. SFPE Conference and Expo.
by Dr Guillermo Rein, Imperial College London.

At the podium delivering the acceptance speech in Dever. Photo by M Stromgren.

I am honoured to receive the Lund award and I am thankful to the Awards Committee and the Society of Fire Protection Engineering for having chosen me. I am humbled too, especially when I read the list of winners that came before me. I must also thank my students, collaborators, sponsors and my family; if I did something of merit, it was because of their abundant support all the way.

Our mission, the mission of all of us attending the conference, is to fight this evil, fire. We aim to reduce the worldwide burden of accidental fires, and protect the lives of people, their property and the environment. Most attendees contribute to this mission through their work in industry; I, like many others, contribute to this mission through my work in academia. Industry and academia together, what a powerful partnership that is of such great importance to society.

Because I am both an engineer and a scientist, I see the value of both partners and I am very keen in growing this partnership which I see is based on three main pillars:

Students: academia forms the student, the engineers of the tomorrow, who then go to industry to start their professional journey and serve society.

Knowledge: academia creates new knowledge, things we did not know before, that add to the immense collective of human wisdom.

Innovation: Knowledge per se is not useful to engineering, but when new knowledge is combined with previous knowldge and applied in new forms and devices to solve actual problems faced by society, then magic happens.

By working together, we advance our mission more and protect society better  by delivering more and better engineers, knowledge and innovation. So now you would understand better why I am so thankful that the Society has chosen me, an academic, to celebrate contributions to the professional recognition of the Fire Protection Engineer.

I would like to wrap it up and finish with the words of the Goethe, the German writer, who once said:
 “Knowing is not enough, we must apply.
Willing is not enough, we must do” 


Sunday, 5 June 2016

ERC HAZE: Reducing the Burden of Smouldering Megafires

I am delighted to announce that I recently won a Consolidator Grant from European Research Council (ERC) for my group, Imperial Hazelab. With a total budget of €2m and 5 years ahead, I will be leading the project HAZE in Reducing the Burden of Smouldering Megafires: an Earth-Scale Challenge.

Dr Rein during a field trip making measurements
on an ongoing smouldering fire
Smouldering megafires are the largest and longest-burning fires on Earth. They destroy essential peatland ecosystems, and are responsible for 15% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. This is the same amount attributed to the whole fleet of road vehicles worldwide (or 10 times the carbon footprint of the UK), and yet it is not accounted for in global carbon budgets. Peat fires also induce surges of respiratory emergencies in the population and disrupt shipping and aviation routes for long periods, weeks even months.

The ambition of HAZE is to advance the science and create the technology that will reduce the burden of smouldering fires. Despite their importance, we do not understand how smouldering fires ignite, spread or extinguish, which impedes the development of any successful mitigation strategy. Megafires are routinely fought across the globe with techniques that were developed for flaming fires, and are thus ineffective for smouldering. Moreover, the burning of deep peat affects older soil carbon that has not been part of the active carbon cycle for centuries to millennia, and thus creates a positive feedback to the climate system.

HAZE wants to turn the challenges faced by smouldering research into opportunities and has the following three novel aims:
  1. Conduct controlled laboratory experiments and discover how peat fires ignite, spread and extinguish.
  2. Develop multidimensional computational models for the field scale (~1 km) and simulate the real phenomena.
  3. Create pathways for novel mitigation technologies in accurate prevention, quick detection systems, and simulation-driven suppression strategies.
With this research project, Europe and Imperial Hazelab have the chance to lead the way and pioneer technologies against this Earth-scale and important but unconventional source of emissions.

Aerosol imaging by NASA of Oct 1997 showing the haze released by peat megafires in Borneo. 
Visual and overlaid infrared imaging of radial smouldering spread over a sample of peat ignited at the centre. See our original photo here.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Welcome Yuqi and Franz to Imperial Hazelab

During 2015, Hazelab grew with two new PhD students who joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Yuqi Hu and Franz Richter.

Yuqi Hu is from China. He became a Safety Engineer from the China University of Geosciences in 2012 with a BSc degree, and then obtained an MSc degree from University Of Science and Technology of China in 2015. At USTC, Yuqi studied experimentally the small particles in the smoke of cigarettes. Now at Hazelab, the preliminary title of his thesis is "Experimental Investigation of Peat Fire Emissions and Haze Phenomena" and is funded by China Scholarship Council.
Franz Richter is from Germany. He became a Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College London in 2015 with a MEng degree. During this final year project, Franz studied computationally how the spread of non-uniform fires in a building affect the charring of timber structures. Now at Hazelab, the preliminary title of his thesis is "Computational pyrolysis of timber in fire" and is funded by EPSRC and Arup.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Radio interview on technology and the McMurray wildfire

Last week I was interviewed by Gareth Mitchell for the radio Click of the BBC World Service about the Fort McMurray wildfire in Canada. It is a short piece, just 3 min long, and it can he heard here. I was asked about the role of technology fighting wildfires, and I chose to highlight tankers, satellites, drones, and computer models. This is the text by BBC introducing the recording:
"The wildfire in Alberta, Canada, seems to be diminishing and residents should be able to return to the city of Fort McMurray over the next two weeks. The fire had appeared to be out of control just a few days ago but thanks to favourable weather conditions appears under control. The weather has played a huge part, but what about technology? AI, drones and satellites have all been used. Dr Guillermo Rein, from Imperial College, London and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Fire Technology explains how tech is now incorporated in fire management."

Friday, 29 April 2016

Fin's and Candle's Creative Contests

Engineering can be the most creative profession, but we engineers are in general not the best communicators nor the best at appreciating artistic work.

I always want to build on this issue and encourage a bit my engineering students' appreciation of communications and the arts. So this academic year, as in previous years, I started the courses with a Creative Contest, for both ME2 Heat Transfer, and IDX Combustion Science modules that I teach at Imperial College.

The instructions to participate were the following:

 "I have two extra copies of textbooks to give away. If interested, send me a poem, comic, drawing, painting, song, video, or anything creative that explains why you are taking this module. Art, wit and humour are allowed, even encouraged".
I show below the submissions. I was the sole jury and found two winners (the first two shown for each contest). Congratulations to the winners (I wish an extensive use your awards).

Fin's Creative Contest in ME2 Heat Transfer.


Candle's Creative Contest in IDX Combustion Science.


Previous years

2015 Fin's and Candle's Creative Contests in ME2 Heat Transfer and ME4 Combustion
2014 Fin's and Candle's Creative Contests in ME2 Heat Transfer and ME4 Combustion

Monday, 21 March 2016

The Fire Navigator: smoke and flame sensors in smart buildings

The Fire Protection Engineering magazine has recently published our article reporting exciting research on the theme of smart buildings and fire protection. In this work, sponsored by Chief Donald J. Burns Memorial Research Grant, my student Nahom and I developed an algorithm that uses data arriving from building sensors to detect and map an ongoing fire. The algorithm, called the Fire Navigator, then provides forecasts of future smoke and flame spread within the building, allowing to see where and how the fire would propagate if not stopped before hand.

We envision that the forecasting of fire dynamics in buildings will lead to a paradigm shift in the response to fire emergencies, providing the fire service with essential information about smoke propagation and flame spread ahead of time (i.e. minutes before it happens). Disposing of information on fire events before they actually happen would have a positive effect on the fire service efficiency and safety, therefore saving human lives and mitigating property losses and environmental damage. Smart buildings anticipate the occupants’ needs with the help of various sensors. Control of heating and air conditioning, energy consumption and lighting are now common examples of how sensors allow control over key aspects of the built environment. We want to extend this to fire safety engineering and enhanced fire fighting. Already existing smoke and heat sensors, as well as sprinklers, generate data that has yet to be harnessed and used in smart buildings. This is what our article proposes and shows how to do it.

Our work is based on combining new and old ideas. The new ideas are the use of a very quick fire model based on cellular automata theory, and the integration of  the whole system into building information models (BIM). You can read the full article at the SFPE website:

The Fire Navigator: Forecasting the Spread of Building Fires on the Basis of Sensor Data 

NOTE: This research was sponsored by SFPE and Bentley Systems via the Chief Donald J. Burns Memorial Research Grant. We thank Arup, specially Judith Schulz, for sharing their expertise in BIM and fire protection systems, and thank KPF for permitting the use of their architectural BIM models.