Sandia Researcher Uses Soap Bubbles to Study Jet Fuel Fires

January 31, 2013, By Sanjeev Ramachandran

I have seen some kids who like to set things on fire, merely to see the flames licking the material in different shapes. It does feel mysterious and magical sometimes.

People who like playing with fire might consider a job like that of Richard Simpson. Simpson is a government scientist who works at Sandia National Laboratories and they spend a lot of time lighting things on fire, but all in the name of science of course.

Richard Simpson was working to develop better computer models for jet fuel fires, and for research he filled a canyon with soap bubbles. While there is absolutely no connection between soap bubbles and jet fuels,the former did provide a solution to the problem he was facing with modeling fire outbreaks.


While researchers studied and tested and modeled the behavior of fires burning jet fuel, they found something amiss. Fires resulting from jet fuel are very hot ones and these get affected by the variations in air flow.

But they couldn’t visualize the flow of air around a hot blazing fire, until a brainwave offered the idea of soap bubbles. That was how Simpson found himself with 20 off-the-shelf bubble machines, instead of going for a complex government contract to build a bubble-maker.

With these common devices and 50 gallons of bubble solution, Simpson got down to working on his research. The bubble machines were scattered in towers  throughout the canyon where Sandia hosts its burn tests. The bubbles were illuminated by a large spotlight so as to capture them with an array of 3D cameras in special heat resistant cases.


Simpson said that the results from this test allowed them to improve the process of modeling jet fuel fires. Moreover, he added that it was fun to collect the data.

The video below doesn’t show the bubble test, but one of the many times when the Sandia folks light things up. The big tongue of flame dancing might be a pretty scene for pyro freaks.

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