School of Civil Engineering

Mentor: Jose Torero

Project Team: Aidon Browning, Tristan Goode, Daniel Kyriacou and Margie Dickson


Project Brief

What is Peruvian, generates a lot of smoke and heat, and after a period of sustained activity is again becoming dormant? If you said the Sabancaya volcano you would have been correct. On an unrelated note, the Civil Engineering Head of School and world expert in combustion and fire sciences, Professor Jose Torero, is offering a mystery project to two adventurous students. Apply to find out more.


Project Report

Four inquisitive students, Aidon Browning, Tristan Goode, Daniel Kyriacou and Margie Dickson, volunteered for the Head of School mystery project.

The project aims to assist forensic investigations into the disposal of human remains by establishing the quantity of fuel necessary for the complete cremation of a body, including destruction of all DNA, by burning on an open pyre. Experiments were conducted using pig carcasses and and varying quantities of wood as fuel for an open pyre. In each test, the pyre was ignited and allowed to burn out while characteristics of the fire including temperature, flame height and outward heat flux to the surroundings were measured.  These experiments will establish reliable, quantitative data on the relationship between cremation on an open pyre and complete destruction of a corpse, including the likely impact of such an intense fire on surroundings. This information will be published to increase understanding of the destruction of bodies by fire and fill in current  knowledge gaps regarding human cremation to the point of DNA destruction.

The Icarus students conducted a literature search to understand the available information about cremation, levels of destruction and open pyres, and the the significant gaps in existing knowledge quickly became apparent. The project then proceeded to the experimental phase and we contributed to each step of the process, gaining valuable insight into the world of experimental research along the way. Key tasks included including drafting animal ethics and biosafety approvals, estimating and procuring materials and arranging a suitable location, designing custom frames for supporting the pyre and thermocouples, fabricating measuring equipment in the fire lab and finally conducting the experiments and analysing the results. Analysis of results is currently underway and limitations on site availability and weather conditions mean that the planned regime of experiments has not yet been fully completed.

A report on this study was published in Science magazine: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/09/burning-bodies-experiment-casts-doubt-fate-missing-mexican-students