Commencement 2009: Fighting Fire With Innovative Engineering

May 12, 2009

Image removed.

Photo Credit: Rensselaer/Mark McCarty

Conventional smoke detection and sprinkler systems are important safety tools and help to save lives, but indiscriminately soaking an office building, home, or workplace with water can cause tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage.

A group of graduating engineers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute set their sights on this problem, and have developed a promising solution. Seniors Jake Pyzza, Erik Kauntz, and Ryan Clapp researched, designed, and built an early prototype of a new “smart” fire suppression system that pinpoints the location of a fire in a building and douses the fire with flame suppressants.

“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 Pyzza, a mechanical engineering major who hails from Campbell Hall, N.Y. “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 developed and built their invention last year as their final project for a yearlong capstone mechanical engineering course, and they are among a handful of winners of the fall 2008 “Change the World Challenge.” Created in 2005 by Rensselaer alumnus Sean O’Sullivan ’85, the bi-annual “Change the World Challenge” competition is 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, and the team 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, originally from Hinckley, Ohio and 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 are increasingly 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 from Cairo, N.Y. “The original home sprinkler system was invented in 1873, by an RPI alum, 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 fire suppression system doesn’t play directly into the group’s post-Commencement plans, but they are pushing their invention forward. They are currently investigating the possibility for licensing the system, refining the system, securing a richer set of performance data, and potentially starting the formal process of filing a patent.

Following graduation, Pyzza plans to join Rensselaer’s Center for Automation Technologies and Systems (CATS) as a graduate student. Kauntz is currently seeking employment in the private sector, and Clapp will spend nine weeks abroad in Rome and Shanghai as the first leg of pursuing a master’s degree in international enterprise management as part of the Rensselaer International Scholars Program.

The group’s fourth member, Andrew Paoletta, finished his studies at Rensselaer last year and will receive his diploma this month at the 2009 Commencement Ceremonies.

Contact: Michael Mullaney
Phone: (518) 276-6161

Back to top