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Pump Up the Bass To Douse a Blaze: Mason Students’ Invention Fights Fires

Students Viet Tran (left) and Seth Robertson with their invention, a sound extinguisher, at the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Alexis GlennA thumping bass may do more than light up a party—it could flat out extinguish it, thanks to a new sound-blasting fire extinguisher by George Mason University undergrads.
 
The fire extinguisher uses low-frequency sound waves to douse a blaze. Engineering seniors Viet Tran and Seth Robertson now hold a preliminary patent application for their potentially revolutionizing device.
 
The idea to fight fire with sound waves came when they were choosing a class project for ECE 492 and 493, Advanced Senior Design, where students produce and present a project for a final grade.
 
Tran and Robertson's 20-pound, Flash Gordon-style 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, urban blazes or space.
 
"Fire 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.
 
It has taken 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."
 
Mark knew nothing about fire extinguishers, so he took a wee step into the abyss himself.
 
"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.
 
Keep your eye on these young inventors.

A version of this story by Molly Brauer appeared on Mason's Newsdesk on Feb. 5, 2015.

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