BACKGROUND: Scientists at San Diego State University are creating an early-warning system for fire outbreaks, equipped with sensors so sensitive they can spot a fire up to six miles away. The researchers will install 13 sensors -- foot-long metal cylinders about 5 inches thick -- in the 4300-acre Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve near San Diego.
HOW IT WORKS: The fire sensors are solar powered and have a life span of about 20 years. Each sensor contains a rotating mirror that searches for any unexpected changes in the heat of the atmosphere around it. All objects give off some kind of heat -- known as infrared radiation -- but the hot carbon dioxide given off by a fire has a specific "signature." This means that the sensors can tell the different between heat from fires and from non-fire sources, such as car exhaust. Once the sensor detects something, the mirror stops rotating and stays pointed in that direction. It uses radio signals over a wireless network to transmit the data to towers or satellites, helping firefighters to quickly determine the precise location of a possible fire.
BENEFITS: Early detection of fires would allow firefighters to take action before fires roar out of control, destroying lives and homes.
WHERE TO FIND IT: The system is called FireAlert. It is manufactured by Ambient Control Systems, based in El Cajon, California. But the sensors are expensive, retailing for about $12,000 each, so groups of homeowners may want to share the costs. They would also have to pay an annual subscription fee of a few dollars for notification services when a fire is near their homes.
WHAT IS SOLAR POWER: Solar power is a form of renewable energy that harnesses the sun's emissions of heat or light. But technically, solar power helps form fossil fuels such as petroleum and coal. These are the result of decayed plant matter that absorbed solar energy when alive; fossil fuels are the concentrated stores of that original solar energy.