18th July 2017

BHASVIC East Sussex Fire and Rescue Collaboration

This year, our Chemistry Enrichment students have teamed up with ESFRS to investigate the flammability of different commonly available peat composts. A number of fire callouts in the local region have been due to peat in outside plant pots combusting when dried out after spells of hot weather. As ESFRS had come in to talk to our students about careers for chemistry graduates in the Fire Service, we had a joint idea to do some research into this area to see if different composts and peats were more or less likely to do this. We also wanted to look at what was causing the ignition in the first place.Richard Moon, lead forensics investigator from ESFRS, came in during October 2016 to talk to our students, and explain the rationale behind the collaboration and the nature of the callouts that they had experienced and dealt with. We proposed to them the idea of a joint open ended research project using BHASVIC chemistry laboratories and giving our students the opportunity to lead on this. Prior to launching this with the students in our “Chemistry Enrichment” group which meets after College every Wednesday afternoon, BHASVIC chemistry staff Sandra Clinton (Head of Department) and Jason O’Grady (teacher and Enrichment Group coordinator) trialled different methods of combustion on a range of peats provided to us by ESFRS. This was designed to explore how the peats behaved under controlled conditions in a laboratory when we tried to combust them. It also most importantly allowed us to assess and manage any risks posed by the procedure. Once we were happy with the parameters and created a risk assessment, we wrote a rough outline of what to do, but mindful of the fact that the students should be allowed to explore this AND perhaps modify it under teacher guided conditions.Outline of the method We used dried peat samples (live for testing, controls for measurement of loss of mass due to water evaporation from the peat)

Above: These were the desiccators we used. The material on the bottom is a drying agent which absorbs water from the air and encourages the samples to dry out. This was our attempt to model a hot dry spell.

Periodically we tested a small sample from each of the “live” samples (one from each of five common brands) , using three ignition techniques outlined below.

We recorded whether the sample smouldered for more than 30 seconds after the ignition source had been removed. None of the peats “caught fire” but some definitely continued to smoulder particularly later on in the year when drier.

  • To simulate an electrical spark (eg damaged external electrical cables) we used a spark gun
  • To simulate a cigarette butt/ember we used a wooden splint (glowing) but allowed to burn down a few cm to create an ember which was then dropped into the peat sample
  • To simulate a full flame, we used a burning splint left on the surface of the peat or pushed into the small sample being tested.

Preliminary findings
Although no one brand of peat stood out as easily combustible, some brands started to combust more easily than others after being left in the above artificial conditions for several months. We also found a connection between water content fluctuations and humidity/temperature over longer periods of time (as you’d expect, plant compost is designed to absorb water to support plant growth).

Our student team of researchers (all first year A level chemistry students) were:

  • Emma Taylor-Gallardo
  • Abigail Stock-Duerdoth
  • Cait Cassidy
  • Alex Gankerseer
  • James Ford
  • Maya Wall
  • Lisa She-Yin

Presenting our findings
When Richard visited us, we agreed that we’d present whatever we found out at the end of a one year cycle. Emma, Lisa, James and Alex presented to three ESFRS senior colleagues, as well as a range of BHASVIC management colleagues including William Baldwin (College Principal), outlining our project and what we have found, as well as any limitations they came up with and future directions to take the project in. The slideshow below outlines what was presented and summarises our findings. Afterwards the students took questions from the audience.

Flammability of Peat Investigation (PowerPoint)

Project data (Excel)

The students have found this an excellent opportunity to carry out real, live research for a genuine issue and in collaboration with a major public service organisation such as ESFRS. All students were presented with certificates which will truly enhance not only their understanding of applied chemistry, but also their University and Employment applications in the future.

Above (L-R):
William Baldwin (BHASVIC Principal), Nigel Cusack (ESFRS), Alex Gankerseer, Jason O’Grady (BHASVIC chemistry teacher), Emma Taylor-Gallardo, Lisa She-Yin, James Ford, Mark Hobbs (ESFRS), Richard Moon (ESFRS)

ESFRS press release