Waterjet Technology Used to Fight Fires, Save Lives

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On September 5, 2002

In the aftermath of last year’s terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, researchers at UMR are developing a waterjet system to more effectively cut through rubble and extinguish fires that may lie smoldering beneath the rubble.

Polishing the Millennium Arch sculpture in the waterjet lab

Dr. Anuj Gupta, associate professor of geological and petroleum engineering, and other researchers at UMR’s High Pressure Waterjet Laboratory have developed a waterjet drilling system that sprays a narrow stream of water at such force that it can slice through steel, concrete and most other construction materials without disturbing the rubble surrounding the hole.

Using a waterjet, rescuers can find out what is underneath all that rubble and debris.

"A waterjet does not work like a mechanical drill. There is no pushing or force involved," says Gupta. "Instead, a stream of high-pressure water mixed with an abrasive, such as sand, cuts a hole that is truly straight, regardless of the material it hits."

While UMR researchers have used waterjets in the past to cut through rock, dig through hazardous waste and wash away land mines, they hadn’t considered waterjets as a rescue and firefighting tool until after last September’s terrorist attacks.

"None of us here at UMR thought about using the waterjet for this purpose until after Sept. 11," says Gupta. "Most of the technology has been around; we just hadn’t thought of applying it to this until now. It forced us to think about how we can deal with something like this in a more efficient way."

Gupta and a team of UMR researchers found that a waterjet can create a tunnel approximately 1 1/2 inches in diameter, go hundreds of feet straight through the rubble to the area of interest. After this hole is made, the waterjet can be removed and a camera can be sent in to survey the damage and check for survivors.

For firefighting operations the waterjet can then be placed back in the hole and used to deliver water to the hottest part of the fire.

"They were spraying a lot of water on top of the rubble (following the World Trade Center collapse), yet all that rubble tends to guide the water away from the heart of the fire, much like a gutter does. It does not necessarily go where you want to it to go," says Gupta.

With the concentrated stream of a waterjet, however, "You are not just throwing all that water around, but you are really pointing it at where you really need it," says Gupta.

Using waterjets would also be safer for firefighters. Firefighters can be put in less danger since the waterjet machine can be controlled remotely at some distance away from the fire or unstable structure.

Looking back at the events that took place on and following Sept. 11, Gupta says, "I think if this technology had been around, the fire could have been extinguished much faster."

Waterjets are used to make a variety of products. For example, a waterjet cuts the carpet in most cars because it cuts so fast, is sterile, and is less expensive than other methods. Other uses include locating and neutralizing land mines, cutting cardboard and making candy bars, frozen foods and aircraft components.

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On September 5, 2002. Posted in Research