Wood Fuels FAA’s Fire Research
As far back as middle school, fire captivated Jennifer Wood. She surrounded herself with candles while she studied. Eventually she began to feed different objects to the candle flame — erasers, paperclips, and even marshmallows — to see how they would burn. Her mother was puzzled as to why Wood’s candles were so “gross looking.”
“I learned what products smelled worse than others,” said Wood. “If it smelled I knew I would get caught.”
What motivated her? “I just really like fire,” she said.
Wood has since put her interest in fire to good use - she is pursuing a master’s degree in University of Maryland (UMD) Department of Fire Protection Engineering (FPE). Wood’s sister tipped her off about Maryland’s program.
“She knew I liked to play with candles when I should have been studying,” said Wood. “She said, ‘Hey, I found the perfect major for you.’” Wood's parents supported the idea, recognizing that her strength in mathematics would pair nicely with engineering.
Wood’s participation in UMD's fire protection program led to a research grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This summer, she has been working in the agency’s Fire Safety Branch at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J.
Wood’s early proclivity for testing the reaction of certain items to fire is being leveraged in tests that hopefully will help the FAA and aviation industry identify better ways to detect fires in the cargo holds of freighter and passenger jets.
“We always like having [students] here,” said Robert Ochs, manager of the Aircraft Systems Fire Protection Section in the Fire Safety Branch. “Jennifer has new ideas. She comes from a different background. Most of us are mechanical engineers; she’s a fire protection engineer, [with] that fire background,” he added.
“Everyone is very helpful,” said Wood. She is especially grateful to the technicians at the center. “Without their help I would not have been able to do it. [Despite] the amount of questions I have every day… no one seems to get annoyed,” she added.
Wood is conducting research on smoke detectors, gas detectors, and other light-scattering equipment toward the goal of identifying technology that more quickly detects fire in airplane cargo holds. She’s also trying to determine the best locations to place detectors in the cargo hold and in shipping containers. Her testing supports research related to recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board to improve detection of fires from cargo containers.
Ochs said that there is better fire detection technology available outside of the aviation industry. “What Jenn is doing… is thinking outside the box,” he said. “Testing whether it’s feasible to put this technology into an airplane. Let’s test out this technology in aviation scenarios and see if they’re better than current systems,” he added.
Wood admitted that her outside-the-box thinking might have “raised some eyebrows” among her FAA colleagues, but her fellow researchers have moved right along with her. She explained her approach: “I’m not used to that… so I’m going to do it this way.”
Wood runs through a complicated variety of factors, including the measurement of particle size and density in smoke, how gas analysis and particle size differs between a smoldering fire and a flaming fire, the leakage rate among different types of cargo containers, and which detectors are preferred for different types of fuel that might produce smoke.
"We are interested in finding out which fire detectors alarm the fastest," she said. "So far, after analyzing several test results, we’ve been finding that gas detectors are alarming faster than smoke detectors. One speculation is that gas detectors are more sensitive and it takes longer for the smoke particles to create a density that can be identified by the light obscuration instruments inside of the smoke detectors."
Wood expressed surprise that Ochs made her the lead on the project. "They definitely gave me the test director role that I was not expecting. I thought I would help out and they said, 'No this is your research and your project.'"
But that’s an usual approach for the FAA’s fire research team, said Ochs. "Students get hands-on experience," he said. "If you’re not covered in soot at the end of the day, you’re not doing your job."
Wood admitted to being uncomfortable and a little stressed at first, having to work with scientists more experienced than her.
"For set up, I have technicians that physically install the devices for me," said Wood. "I was in charge of making all the diagrams where each instrument should go and being out there for the installation. I created all of the test procedures and an equipment checklist and safety plan which is required for every FAA test."
The FAA trained her to run every test on her own, providing her with a 2-page checklist printed in 6-point font.
As her summer winds down, Wood can look back with pride on her time at the Tech Center.
"I appreciate everything that I’ve learned from my experience here," she said. "You learn a lot of people skills. Engineers, they teach you all the math and science, but they don’t teach you how to work through some conflicts. In class, you’re used to the scholarly part being difficult, whereas [at the FAA] the more difficult part was how to make sure that everything was working efficiently, while making sure that conflict was avoided."
The FAA’s research grant that funded Wood’s work has opened her eyes to future opportunities.
"They’re extremely important," she said about the grants. "I know for a fact if I had not had a grant I would not have gone into research, or a master’s program. Now that I’m seeing another side of the field I could go in, I think I’m definitely more interested in research. I would be open to looking at it in the long run. I wouldn’t be surprised if I looked at more research-based jobs," she added.
Woods will present her research at the 9th Triennial International Fire & Cabin Safety Research Conference this coming October. Advised by FPE Professor and Chair, James Milke, she is completing the latter half of the FPE BS/MS program, and is set to graduate in May, 2020.
Published September 3, 2019