STANSBURY PARK, Tooele County — Like a lot of young teen boys, Gavin Norman is fascinated by fire.
Not necessarily setting things on fire but understanding the science of fire and then coming up with an environmentally friendly means to extinguish it.
Gavin's exploration began with lessons learned in his science class at Clarke N. Johnsen Junior High School in Tooele. It was also motivated by his childhood experiences with asthma and growing up in a state prone to wildfires.
"The fires would make me cough and cough," Gavin said during an interview at his home.
As organic material burns, the carbon released combines with oxygen, Gavin said.
"There's also hydrogen in the organic compound so you get water in the smoke. You always get CO2 (carbon dioxide) and water, and sometimes little byproducts. You always end up with CO2," he explained. CO2 extinguishes fires because it deprives fires of oxygen.
Gavin, 13, sought to find a compact form of carbon dioxide to apply to a fire to help extinguish it quickly.
"Luckily for me, this material I'm seeking for already exists — dry ice. I decided to do an experiment to see, under what circumstances, dry ice would put out a fire," he says in a video. Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide.
Not only did it work, his innovation won top honors for Utah in the 10th annual Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, a nationwide science competition for students in the fifth through eighth grades.
The contest challenges students to develop innovative solutions to everyday problems and thereby improve the lives of many, then create a video to explain their discoveries.
"Norman rose to the top of the competition out of hundreds of submissions due to his science acumen, innovative thinking and exceptional communication skills demonstrated in his entry video. The budding young scientist has been recognized for his project on dry snow working as a method for putting out fires," a press release from the contest states.
The family's portable fire pit became Gavin's "laboratory" where he and his family lit numerous fires until he landed on a means to best extinguish the blaze.
One of his early attempts involved placing water in a tin can and adding chunks of dry ice, hoping that the gas emitted would slow down the fire or extinguish it.
That didn't work.
So Gavin decided to crush the dry ice into smaller pieces and apply it directly to the fire. Smaller pieces would cover a larger surface area, he surmised.
He placed the dry ice in a grocery bag and struck it with a mallet until "it looked like a snow cone" and then sprinkled it across the fire.
In a demonstration in his family's driveway this past week, the technique was highly effective, with Gavin using only a small amount of dry ice to put out the fire, although hot spots remained.
"I barely used any of it," he said.
While the technique left behind some hot spots, they could be more readily knocked down by firefighters, he said.
Another benefit is there is very little to clean up aside from remnants of the fire. Conventional fire retardants dropped on fires are made up of water, fertilizer chemicals such as ammonia phosphate and sulfate, and minor ingredients for color.
"It leaves behind kind of a mess," Gavin said.
Dry ice is a cleaner, environmentally friendly option, because as it breaks down or "sublimates," Gavin explains, it turns directly into carbon dioxide gas rather than a liquid.
Gavin said he would like to take the experiment further by flying a helicopter over a wildfire, capturing the carbon dioxide gas formed during fires and pressurizing it, depressurizing it until it achieved a frozen state and then grinding it and reapplying it to the fire to extinguish it.
Admittedly, a home fire pit is a far cry from the wildfires that burn in Utah each year. For example, the Brian Head Fire in southern Utah exceeded 28,000 acres this past week.
But Gavin says his idea should be tested on a larger scale to further refine his techniques and determine whether using "dry snow" to fight fire is scalable.
"I don't have a way to test things on a real forest fire," he said.