Student Engineers Design Fire Suppression System

A group of graduating engineers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute designed a prototype of a new "smart" fire suppression system that pinpoints the location of a fire in a building and douses the blaze with flame suppressants. The system could help prevent some of the costly damage that may result when sprinkler systems indiscriminately soak an office building or home in the event of a fire.

"Our sensors sweep a room, sense where the fire is, and then deliver a suppressant to just that area, while the sensor is still sweeping the rest of the room to see if the fire spread," said Jake Pyzza, a mechanical engineering major. "If it continues to scan and doesn't see any more sources of fire, it turns the suppression system off to help minimize any damage to the room's contents."

The group, consisting of Pyzza, Erik Kauntz, Ryan Clapp and Andrew Paoletta, developed and built their invention last year as their final project for a yearlong capstone mechanical engineering course. They are among a handful of winners of the fall 2008 Change the World Challenge, a biannual competition intended to support entrepreneurship education and inspire ideas to improve the human condition by providing a $1,000 cash award for ideas that will make the world a better place.

The new fire detection and suppression system is hardwired with a battery backup so it can function even if the building's electricity is shut off or unavailable. The team also is investigating methods for directly transmitting the pinpointed location – down to the specific room – of the fire to the local fire department and/or private home security companies. The system's combination of ultraviolet and infrared sensors can locate and track a lit match up to 25 feet away, according to the group.

"It's a robust system, and we basically built it from the ground up," said Kauntz, a mechanical engineering major. "Combined, it took us hundreds of hours to design and put together."

The group's original idea was to develop a "firefighting grenade" that fire safety officials could throw into blaze, which gradually evolved into a home fire suppression system. The second idea stuck, particularly because municipalities increasingly are requiring new homes and home additions to have dedicated sprinkler systems.

"We felt there was a resounding need for an update for home sprinkler systems," said Clapp, a Product Design and Innovation (PDI) major. "The original home sprinkler system was invented in 1873, by an RPI alumnus, and it hasn't really changed since then. So we felt it was time for an update, and that this was the perfect place to do it."

The group members currently are investigating the possibility for licensing and refining the system, securing a richer set of performance data and potentially starting the process of filing a patent.

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