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BYU professor, chemical engineering students working to understand the science behind wildfire smoke

Posted at 10:28 PM, Sep 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-28 00:28:01-04

PROVO, Utah -- BYU Chemical Engineering Professor David Lignell, loves fires.

“Understanding the math and physics behind them is just fascinating," he said.

However, he doesn't love the affect they have on our air quality.

“Air quality impacts a lot of different people," Lignell said. "I myself have been impacted. I've felt it for the last several weeks."

He developed an advanced model with his PhD students that can help predict pollution caused by wildfire smoke.

“We're trying to understand better the way that soot is formed from these fuels,” Lignell said.

The smoke that we see from wildfires is a combination of gases and soot. Lignell's model, which looks like something you'd see in movies like “Goodwill Hunting” or “A Beautiful Mind,” is a physics-based model which predicts the initial formation of soot particles emitted during wildfires.

“If you combine that model with a fire simulation model, that could help you to understand the smoke emissions from a fire," he said. "If you were then able to couple that with an atmospheric model, you’d be able to understand how the smoke is transported through the valleys and surrounding areas."

The research could help the forest service and other wildfire management groups better understand the impact of prescribed burns.

“You might want to understand before you start the fire what’s going to happen, what kind of emissions we can expect,” Lignell said.

The goal now is to make this formula a little easier to understand for the average fire expert.

“The model we've developed is probably too computationally expensive to use in those simulations so we're using the detailed model to validate simpler models that can then be used more efficiently,” Lignell said.

The hope is that it will help fire crews make more science-based decisions when fighting wildfires or conducting prescribed burns.