Unlike traditional fires that burn through their fuel continuously, discrete fires spread by jumping from one fuel source to another. There are very few examples of discrete fires on Earth, but sparklers commonly used on New Year’s Eve burn are an example. Another example is forest fires, where trees burn individually and the next tree burns only when the heat from burning trees around it reaches the temperature necessary for combustion.
Metals have high energy density but they do not ignite easily unless in powder form, when they burn in discrete flames. By setting metal powder alight during a flight beyond the edges of our atmosphere, researchers can study how it burns in a chamber with evenly spaced metal powder suspended in weightlessness. This is not possible on Earth as powder clumps together into a pile due to gravity.
The results from the burning will be analysed to create models of discrete burning to extrapolate the ideal conditions of particles’ flow and Oxygen concentration.
Once researchers know what the ideal mixture is, we can work towards creating it in a power station, or, possibly, in a car’s engine; by injecting the iron powder into a chamber for a brief moment it could be engineered to have the perfect conditions for combustion.
The beauty of metal combustion is that it is carbon-free, if one burns iron powder for example the only ‘waste’ product is rust.