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Students Viet Tran (L) and Seth Robertson with their invention, a sound extinguisher, at the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn/Creative Services/George Mason University

Do Not Listen to Your Professors

By Molly Brauer

This advice rarely yields success, but it worked like a charm for Viet Tran and Seth Robertson.

Over the past year, these Mason engineering undergrads invented, and secured a preliminary patent application for, a sound-blasting fire extinguisher that may revolutionize firefighting.

Seniors Robertson and Tran met as freshmen. Tran, an admitted sub-stellar student in high school, and a pitiful culinary pupil who couldn't tell a zucchini from a cucumber, learned study discipline from Robertson, a student athlete who mastered time management. "I'd wake up at six after we studied until three in the morning and he'd already be at wrestling practice," said Tran.

The idea to fight fire with sound waves came when they were choosing a class project for "ECE 492 &ECE 493, Advanced Senior Design," where students produce and present a project for a final grade.

Tran learned that DARPA was working on the concept, and that West Georgia University was working on "Prometheus." So Tran said, "Why don't we be the ones to make it happen?"

Others were not so enthusiastic. Robertson and Tran's classmates said, "You guys will make us fail." Several professors also threw cold water on their idea before they convinced Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Brian Mark to mentor their project

"My initial impression was that it wouldn't work," he said. "Some students take the safe path, but Viet and Seth took the higher-risk option." Mark knew nothing about fire extinguishers, so he took a wee step into the abyss himself after all, Bill Gates' Traf-O-Data fizzled, Disney was fired for "lack of imagination" and Einstein was rejected by Zurich Polytechnic.

"They're really special," said Mark, "Viet is the idea man and Seth is practical. At the final presentation, he wanted to use some fancy new presentation technology, but Seth convinced Tran to stick with a simple PowerPoint. They didn't win the competition, but their presentation before a large audience was impressive. "Viet and Seth are above average students not the very top but they really are inventors," said Mark.

When they approached Mark, Tran and Robertson showed him a YouTube video demonstrating a DARPA experiment with two giant tubes aiming sound waves at a fire. "From this project idea, they built a smaller, more practical model that worked," said Mark.

Extinguishing fire with sound has many advantages over existing methods, and in theory, it can be adapted for consumer or professional use.

The Robertson/Tran sound wave device is free of toxic chemicals and eliminates collateral damage from sprinkler systems. Mounted on drones it could improve safety for firefighters confronting large forest fires or urban blazes. "Fire is a huge issue in space," said Tran. "In space, extinguisher contents spread all over. But you can direct sound waves without gravity," explained Robertson.

Tran and Robertson's 20 lb., Flash Gordon-style prototype was born through $600 of their own money and about as many trials. "The provisional patent application they filed gives them a year to talk publicly about the invention, to test the market, and to determine whether pursuing the patent makes sense," said Carolyn Klenner, intellectual property paralegal, in Mason's Office of Technology Transfer, who assisted them with the patent application.

Initially, both students thought big speakers and high frequencies would douse a fire. "But it's low-frequency sounds like the thump-thump bass in hip-hop that works," said Tran, who joked that rappers like 50 Cent could probably douse a fire, and that hip-hop celebrity endorsements might be just the ticket to hawk their fire extinguisher.

Robertson works for the Department of Defense while studying, and he's been offered a permanent position with the DOD at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Mass. Tran has an internship at Zodiac Aerospace in Dulles with the promise of a full-time job upon graduation.

Keep your eye on these young inventors, and don't rule out a show-stopping IPO although their extinguisher doesn't have a moniker yet Blazewhammer? Burnbuster? The Snuff! The late-night infomercial is in development, but for now click here to see the device in action. Sound Extinguisher