Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

September 5, 2017
Teen on Fire

Local teen wins state award for creating icy solution he hopes can fight wildfires  

Gavin Norman earned a statewide award for his dry ice experiment. Now he hopes his unique ideas will help fight wildfires worldwide.

The 14-year-old Stansbury Park teen wasn’t out to prove the experts wrong. He wasn’t in it for the award, the press attention or even the grade. And while the notion of earning extra credit in school for playing with fire was a dream come true, Norman’s vision for his fourth term science project transcended boyhood fascinations. It’s one thing to make fire; it’s quite another to master it.

“There are all these big fires around this time of year, and I thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way to control them,’” Norman recalled as he prepped his family’s portable fire pit to recreate the experiment that earned him a Utah’s State Merit Award in the 10th annual Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge last spring.

He placed crumpled balls of newspaper into his family’s portable fire pit, then retrieved two sheets of particleboard from his backyard. It was a late summer morning in Stansbury Park. The rising sun’s rays were muted by smoke drifting in from distant wildfires, rendering the nearby Oquirrh Mountains in a hazy, watercolor gray.

The experiment’s final ingredient — a small block of dry ice — arrived a few minutes later when Gavin’s father, Robert Norman, arrived back from the local grocery store.

“They’re probably wondering who this guy is that keeps buying dry ice,” Robert Norman joked.

Dry ice, the solid form of carbon dioxide, was the key to Gavin Norman’s experiment.

In the days after Deanne Hamilton, Norman’s science teacher at Clarke N. Johnson Junior High assigned the project last spring, he brainstormed ideas to control wildfires. He ultimately decided on dry ice.

“Dry ice is just CO2 gas that’s been frozen into a block,” Norman explained. “It replaces the oxygen, so it’s used to extinguish fires. So, if you can use it to control fires at home, why can’t you use it on forest fires?”

Before experimenting, Norman researched online to see if anybody had tried dry ice on fire before. He found an academic Q&A where a university expert casually dismissed the idea, since fire will always be hotter than dry ice is cold. Several YouTube videos featured informal experiments where people placed dry ice onto a fire.

In each case, the effect was minimal.

“They all failed,” Norman said.

But he noticed a common thread: everybody trying to extinguish fire with dry ice was using it in block form, then abandoning the experiment after tepid results. In Norman’s mind, they were on the right track, but had stopped too short. He explained that CO2 gas should extinguish the flames, but in block form, sublimation (the transition process from a solid state directly to gas) occurs too slowly.

Gavin started his own tests by recreating the chunk experiments he had seen online. Predictably, dry ice chunks had little effect. He then tried to speed up the sublimation process by adding pieces of dry ice to water to create a fog effect.

Again, the effect was negligible.

“It only went where the wind went,” Norman said. “So on a windy day it wouldn’t be effective at all.”

For his final test, Gavin crushed the dry ice into a powder to apply directly to the fire.

“Mrs. Hamilton taught me that to speed up a reaction, whether it’s a physical or chemical change, you crush material into a powder,” he explained. “If you have a block of something, there are six sides that can react. Altogether, a powder has a ton more area.”

It took only a small amount of dry ice powder to immediately extinguish the flames.

“When I got it to work, that was exciting,” Norman said.

The Young Scientist Challenge is a national competition that encourages students in the fifth through eighth grades to create innovative solutions to everyday problems. According to the contest’s website, students are awarded based on their passion for science, spirit of innovation and ingenuity and effective communication skills. Entries are submitted in the form of a 1-2 minute video.

“It was neat to see him out there filming it,” Robert Norman said. “It was an extra-credit assignment. He didn’t need the extra credit, but sure enough, he’s out there doing it.”

Gavin Norman credits his teacher, Mrs. Hamilton, for fostering confidence and creativity in learning.

“She has a lot of faith in us,” he said. “And she always has awesome projects.”

Robert Norman handed the bag of dry ice to his son, who next crushed it with a mallet until it reached a snow cone consistency and poured it into a cup. Then he lit the newspaper. Once the fire was sufficiently stoked, he dropped a small amount of dry ice powder onto it, quickly extinguishing the flames.

“It actually takes more time to get the fire going than it does to put it out,” he smiled.

Gavin Norman hopes to introduce his idea to the firefighting community for testing. He envisions an aviation-portable compressor that could capture CO2 gas from wildfires, convert it into dry ice and drop it back down on the fire.

Norman clarified that, despite the dramatic results of his experiment, applying dry ice to fire won’t totally extinguish it.

“It’s a retardant,” he said. “It puts the flame out, but the heat is all still there on top of the un-burnt material. It can start again with wind.”

He explained that the objective of using dry ice powder on a large scale is to mitigate the blaze long enough to allow firefighters to gain control of it.

Like the rest of his family, Norman enjoys cars, motorcycles and sports. But he said he often enjoys discovering the science behind these activities more than the activities themselves.

“Without science, how could you ride a motorcycle or play football?” he posited. “I’d rather make something than play with something, and I’d rather make it for other people.”

But for Norman, science goes beyond the principles of sublimation or the physics of throwing a football. According to the Young Scientist Challenge website, the contest aims to help students develop solutions that positively impact them, their communities and the global population — an objective the teen fully embraces.

“It always leads back to helping people,” he said. “I can’t think of any invention that came about just because it was interesting. It’s always there to help people. That’s what science is.”

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