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A Wildfire Wunderkind? How Arul Mathur Wants to Help Protect Properties
Safety

A Wildfire Wunderkind? How Arul Mathur Wants to Help Protect Properties

By | August 9, 2021

Arul Mathur is a high school senior who lives in California. Unlike most students his age, he has invented a Fire Activated Canister Extinguisher (FACE) device designed to help put out wildfires near properties.

 

The following transcript is edited for style and clarity.

 

James Tehrani:

Welcome to the SpheraNOW podcast, a program focused on safety, sustainability, and productivity issues. I’m James Tehrani, Spark’s editor in chief. Today on the show we have a very special guest. His name is Arul Mathur. He is a young inventor from the bay area, a TEDx speaker and the face of his own startup company. He is also the first high school student we’ve had on the show and we’ll be discussing his idea to help protect houses and, yes, businesses from wildfires. Thank you so much for joining me today, Arul, I really appreciate your time.

 

Arul Mathur:

Yeah, of course. It’s a pleasure to be here.

 

James Tehrani:

Great. Well, before we get into this, I was doing some research the last couple of days, and I was looking up some stats from the National Interagency Fire Center and some other places, and I just wanted to read you some of these numbers. So there’s currently 107 large fires taking place as we speak. Wildfires, that is. There’s more than 23,000 people fighting these fires. There’s more than 3.4 million acres that have been burned. This is all in the U.S. alone. And the average fire these days is burning 52 days. Of course, the Dixie Fire has already reached 676 square miles. And this doesn’t even include wildfire as we see in Patras, Greece, and other areas. What the heck is going on here, Arul?

 

Arul Mathur:

Yeah, definitely. Wildfires have always been a huge problem, but it seems like this year is a lot worse than most. And there’s a couple of things that could be attributed to that. So one, especially in the West Coast, is the dry climate and just climate change in general. As our temperature gets hotter, as our climate keeps changing to that warmer temperature, as greenhouse gases keep getting emitted, you have that inherent high wildfire risk as time passes. And in 2021 we can definitely see evidence of that. If you compare the 2021 wildfire season to say five years ago, the 2016 wildfire season, you’re going to be able to see that drastic difference in the severity of fires as time has gone on.

 

James Tehrani:

Wow. It’s really scary to think about. So you’re a high school student. So tell us your story. How did you get involved in wildfire research and developing a product to help combat them?

 

Arul Mathur:

Well, for the first eight years of my life, up until I was eight years old, I actually lived in New Jersey over on the East Coast. And when I was on the East Coast, when I was a child, I still am a child, but when I was younger, I didn’t hear much, really anything, about wildfires going on on the west coast, let alone, I didn’t even know what they were. So when I came over to California back in 2012, I was completely shocked to find that every single year, somehow without fail, wildfires burned at such an intensity that they burned thousands of homes and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

 

Arul Mathur:

And at that point I realized that, OK, this is a huge problem that I didn’t even understand before, but it wasn’t until 2019 where I became personally connected to the whole wildfire situation because, in 2019, a wildfire actually came so close to my house that it threatened to evacuate me and my family from my home. And at that point I realized that, wow, I’m really not in control of my life anymore. How could a wildfire, which maybe have started from, say, a cigarette butt thrown on the side of the road or a spark off a power line, grow and become so large that it could threaten to displace me and my family from our home that we’d be living in for six, seven years?

 

James Tehrani:

I’m just curious. What kind of conversations were you having with your family at that point about evacuating? Was that a real possibility?

 

Arul Mathur:

Right. So we’d always had an evacuation plan in place in the off-chance that we’d ever need to use it, but we never actually expected it to get to a scenario where that evacuation plan would come in handy, because it was such a surreal experience because we’d been seeing all these wildfires on TV through the news, but this was the first time that we had ever personally experienced the impacts of that.

 

James Tehrani:

Definitely. And so I’m a Midwesterner myself and I was looking, like I said, online the last couple of days and Minnesota, which is obviously quite a ways from California, is currently blanketed by what one media outlet called ‘dystopian skies’ from the smoke moving across the country. So even though I’m in the Midwest and you were on the East Coast, and these are the kinds of problems we don’t necessarily think about, it’s not that it’s contained to one area, it really, I mean, because of weather the smoke moves across the country and really affects lots of people.

 

Arul Mathur:

Yeah. I definitely agree. In fact, as time goes on and as that climate change sets in, it’s really important for people in your area, as well as on the east coast, to realize that wildfires aren’t just contained to the West Coast. As our climate keeps getting hotter, the wildfire dangers spreading across the country into the east is going to inevitably increase. So people over on the east and in the Midwest need to start preparing and thinking about what’s going to happen when wildfires do start occurring in really high numbers in those areas. So it’s definitely something to watch out for and be aware of.

 

James Tehrani:

So you started talking about not being in control and being powerless against these wildfires. Is that when you started thinking about FACE, the Fire Activated Canister Extinguisher?

 

Arul Mathur:

Yeah. That’s exactly right. So going back to when I was almost forced to evacuate my home, at that point in time I felt a lot of fear. Not only because I was leaving my home behind, but it was more so the fact that I didn’t know who was going to look out for my home when I’m not there, because all of the firefighters are focused on fighting the meat of the fire, the actual body and no one is going to be able to give that personal attention to my home to make sure that it doesn’t burn down. And at that point I realized that there needs to be something available to home owners to serve as at least a first line of defense against wildfires to at least buy some time before the fire department can actually come to your home and put it out. And that need, that security for your home, is what inspired the initial idea behind FACE.

 

James Tehrani:

OK. So explain how it works. And then do you also foresee this as a possibility for business use?

 

Arul Mathur:

Yeah, definitely. So in terms of how it works first, FACE is essentially a hybridization of the typical fire sprinkler technology that you’d see in a commercial building, those fire sprinklers with a red glycerin bulbs inside. And it’s crossed between that technology as well as the portability of your traditional handheld fire extinguisher. So as a result, FACE takes the automation from those sprinkler heads and combines it with the portability of a manual fire extinguisher. And as a result, it can be placed in just about anywhere there’s a fire risk.

So going to your point about commercial use, there are definitely many uses in commercial applications. For example, just a couple of ideas. If you’re storing flammable storage in say a warehouse, which could have a lot of fire risk, you could place FACE devices near your cargo to help prevent it from burning or being destroyed by fires or even outside of your building, if there’s a wildfire approaching, say, your storefront, you can have FACE devices mounted outside of that property that you’re operating on and help prevent that from burning down. So it’s definitely very versatile and can definitely be used in business use as well.

 

James Tehrani:

How big are these devices?

 

Arul Mathur:

So the current prototype that I’ve come up with is a size of one gallon. So right now it’s ideally designed for interior use. However, I am designing 5-, 10- and 100-gallon canisters and even 500-gallon canisters for use not only outside of properties but also for those large industrial applications like you’d see in maybe a large warehouse or large storage facility.

 

James Tehrani:

Interesting. So talk to me a little bit about the development process. How long did it take to come up with the perfect prototype?

 

Arul Mathur:

So I think FACE is a prime example of that iterative development process. So when I was initially getting started with the concept, how to design the device and the problem, I actually ended up completely overengineering it. I looked into really complicated sensors, electronics, like microcircuitry, to try and execute my idea, and I realized that wouldn’t really work for several reasons. So after that, I went back to the drawing board and went to a more binary system, an on-off system, something that didn’t really require any complicated electronics to work.

 

Arul Mathur:

And that’s when I started looking into existing fire suppression technologies and how they could be modified to be used in these wildfire and large-scale fire applications. So after I’d set upon that idea of using the fire sprinkler, as well as combining it with the portability of a fire extinguisher, at that point I conducted several tests in which I varied the fire retardant that I used, the pressure, all of the ratios, even the height that it is off the ground. And after dozens of tests, I was able to finally get a working device which worked in its intended use case.

 

James Tehrani:

That’s amazing. And you sent me a video and I was watching it, and I guess this was filmed in your backyard where you actually had the device on a fence and you had a fire come up to the fence, basically, what were your parents thinking during all of this?

 

Arul Mathur:

Oh, they were terrified is a mild word to describe their emotions there. But definitely my parents were very supportive of what I was doing. We were very careful. We followed all of the guidelines from our local fire department when those tests were going on, when we were laying some dried grass as fuel to lead up to the fence in the test. My parents and I all had face shields on. My dad was ready with a hose. My mom was ready with the fire extinguisher. So we were very prepared in the case that it didn’t work out.

 

James Tehrani:

OK, that’s an interesting point. So did you work with fire departments to help develop this? And when did you bring them in to check that out if you did?

 

Arul Mathur:

So I definitely worked with a lot of fire professionals, not necessarily fire departments, at least in the development of the device. So in terms of when I brought them in on the project, it was really after I went through that first iterative process of scrapping the overengineered version, because at that point I realized that, OK, I’m not qualified to do all of the development of this device by myself. I need help. I need advice from people who’ve been in the field for 30-plus years. So after talking to those individuals, they were able to give me really, really valuable insight on the dispersion radius I’m looking for with the size of device I have, what fire retardant to use, where to place these, etc. So I think bringing those fire professionals on at that earlier stage really helped contribute to what it is today.

 

James Tehrani:

And how hard was that when you approached them? Were any of them dubious of a 16-, 17-year-old kid approaching them, or were they pretty accommodating for you?

 

Arul Mathur:

Well, in some cases, at least it was pretty tough to get my foot in the door. I mean, at the time when I started developing it I think I was 15. So when I started reaching out to larger fire companies, larger fire organizations and even fire departments, a lot of times I didn’t even get a response back, but one day I did get a couple of responses back and that got my foot in the door and that opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me.

 

James Tehrani:

That’s amazing. And so I understand you had a successful Kickstarter campaign. So how many of these units have you made now?

 

Arul Mathur:

So currently I’ve ordered the first 40 devices, which were sold, currently in the process of making those, with about 100 more on the way. So definitely working on fulfilling those initial orders from Kickstarter.

 

James Tehrani:

Very cool. And I’m curious, so as a young person looking at the world, and when we talk about wildfires, obviously we should be talking about climate change. So as a young person looking at this, do you feel that your generation has the initiative to really make a change in the world? Because obviously your device is about putting out wildfires after they’ve started, but really the goal should be to help the world so that we don’t see these rising temperatures and we meet the IPCC guidelines and so forth. So what do you think your generation is willing to do to make that happen?

 

Arul Mathur:

So definitely first taking a look to the past. Humanity in general has definitely seen huge strides from where it started. I mean, if we look back to say the industrial revolution, the amount of pollution that was occurring at that time was just unimaginable. But as the generations continued, as humanity evolved, we came up with a lot better and more efficient solutions collectively to help slow down that process to help get cleaner fuel. So in terms of cross-applying that history to today, I think that my generation just in general is continuing on what that generation did after the Industrial Revolution, taking already a good technology, a good revolution, and taking it to that next step, making it cleaner for the environment and really optimizing it. And I’m sure that the generation after mine will continue to do the same.

 

James Tehrani:

That’s great. And as a service to everybody, please do not do any crazy gender reveal stunts, because they do cause wildfires. So please do not do that. If people want to get more information about you and FACE, where can they go?

 

Arul Mathur:

So to get more information about FACE, you can definitely go ahead and navigate to my website at www.facefires.com or you can follow my account on Instagram for FACE, which is @facefires.

 

James Tehrani:

All right. Great. Well, thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure meeting you and I really wish you the best of luck. This is a really cool idea.

 

Arul Mathur:

Of course. Thank you for having me.

 

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