BYU researchers create formula to predict wildfire smoke emissions

Local News

PROVO, Utah (News4Utah) – Recent wildfires have caused Utah’s air quality to plummet, but researchers at Brigham Young University have come up with a way to possibly curb the health effects of bad air by better predicting how much smoke and soot could come from a fire. 

The formula, which looks a lot like something Dr. John Nash might have come up with in A Beautiful Mind, is complex and could make a layman’s head spin just by looking at it. But Dr. David Lignell said it could be key to understanding what amount of smoke and concentration of soot could be emitted by a given wildfire. The equation can be varied to apply to different types of combustibles – allowing experts to better predict how much hazard a spark can pose. And better prediction equals better public health response. 

 ​”You could have a real impact on people’s lives,” said Lignell, associate professor at BYU’s Chemical Engineering Department. “We like to think that if we can understand these physical process…we can apply them to a range of conditions,”  he said. 

His Ph.D student, Alex Josephson, is at Los Alamos in Texas studying various types of fuels, using fire models to test out the formula. 

That information could come in handy for firefighters as flames continue to scorch land in Utah and surrounding states. 

Previous formulas have not been able to be implemented due to tremendous complexity and cost, Lignell said. The goal now is to make this formula palatable and understandable so fire experts can make more informed decisions on prescribed burns and prevention of wildfire spread. 

Lignell, an asthma sufferer, said he hopes their work can help people’s health in the long run, and help improve Utah’s air quality. 

“It’s nice to be able to work on problems that have relevance to the society that we live in,” said Dr. Lignell. 

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