Our observations of the natural world seem to indicate that water and fire are sworn enemies. Putting out fires, for instance, usually means dousing it with water. Except for grease fires! Meanwhile, it’s heat that causes water to evaporate. So it’s understandable why the mere existence of a blowtorch that uses water to create a scorching flame might rattle our mental cages a bit.
SafeFlame, a European Union-backed collaboration between several European technology companies, was designed as a portable alternative to conventional acetylene-based torches that have become standard equipment for welders throughout the world. The device relies instead on what’s called an electrolyzer system. Water is poured into the electrolyzer unit, where electricity is used to separate the liquid’s hydrogen and oxygen molecules, then remix and ignite them to produce a type of flame that a Euronews report describes as “cleaner,” creating only water as a byproduct.
The technology isn’t anything new. Technically called an oxy-gas torch, these devices have also been more commonly referred to over the years as a “water torch.” In fact, the Henes Manufacturing Company sold one of the earliest versions known as the “Water Welder” way back in 1969. However, as other technologies such as acetylene-fueled and arc-based welding proved to be more cost-effective and gained wider adoption by professional welders, oxyhydrogen torches were relegated to smaller niches, such as welding glass and plastics.
The researchers behind SafeFlame recently demonstrated their latest prototype on the Euronews TV show Futuris to show that the since-faded technology is not only safe, but also practical enough for heavy-duty industrial applications such as brazing, a process similar to welding except that only one of the metals (the filler) is melted. One of SafeFlame’s main advantages is that the flame is only generated outside of the torch, making the equipment cool to the touch. And unlike acetylene and propane systems, water doesn’t need to be stored in pressurized bottles, which are flammable hazards waiting to happen.
Nick Ludford, a materials scientist with collaborating partner TWI, predicts that, over time, the technology could be 20 times cheaper than what’s currently used, since it would eliminate expenses for storage, insurance and having to transport the bottles. In fact, much of the team’s work involved addressing aspects that made oxyhydrogen torches so costly, mainly the high price of certain components vital for carrying out the process.
For instance, Andrew Ellis, a research technologist with partner ITM Power, told Euronews that the team carried out extensive research on how to reduce the necessary amount of platinum, an expensive catalyst used in electrolysis, so that electrolyzer systems can be mass-produced in an affordable way.
According to the report, researchers do hope to make the SafeFlame available “in the near future,” but for now will continue testing their electrolyzer prototype with the help of welders in the United Kingdom.