His studies sparked a fire

Garrett Borth, who will graduate from University of Idaho with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering this weekend, poses for a photo on the second-floor balcony of the Integrated Research and Innovation Center.

MOSCOW — Author Norman Maclean tapped into a Western archetype with the title of his 1992 book, “Young Men and Fire.”

Fighting fire and, let’s admit it, playing with fire are activities young men are drawn to. It’s fun, exciting and, at times, it’s dangerous.

Fire was certainly part of the appeal for Garrett Borth when it came time to choose a capstone engineering project to work on during his senior year at the University of Idaho.

Borth, 22, grew up in Genesee. He chose UI in part because of its affordability, and because it has a good engineering program. He’ll graduate Saturday with a degree in mechanical engineering.

“It’s been a great experience,” he said of his four years at UI. “I had the opportunity to work on a lot of interesting things.”

One of those was the “Breathing Fire” ember-generating machine he and four other students designed and built this past year. It was Borth’s top choice from among a portfolio of projects students could select from in their senior year.

Sponsored by the College of Natural Resources, the goal of the project was to design a machine that shoots out embers or firebrands, to help study fire behavior and determine how different materials react in wildfire conditions.

“It’s hard to simulate that in a controlled environment,” Borth said.

Three mechanical engineers and two bioengineers worked on the project, he said, with a faculty adviser overseeing their work.

The first step was meeting with the client to determine the system requirements, Borth said. “They wanted something that was portable, that fit in the back of a pickup. It had to be able to run autonomously for at least 15 minutes, and they wanted an emergency shutdown and remote control.”

With those requirements in mind, the group broke the machine into components, first designing something that could create embers from wood chips, then figuring out a way to shoot out a flow of embers, and adding an auto-fill mechanism for the wood chips.

Coming up with the basic design and testing prototype components took most of the first semester, Borth said. Building a completed machine took another few months. By the beginning of April, they were ready to test the finished product and do some fine-tuning.

The first time they lit the torch and began producing embers was exciting, he said. The embers would shoot out into different building material, creating more and more heat until suddenly the material burst into flame.

“Poof! It was super satisfying,” Borth said.

He’ll be working with fire of a different sort after graduation, when he begins work at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash.

“I’ll be working with a team of engineers on refueling and de-fueling nuclear submarines,” Borth said. “I did an internship there the last two years. It’s a pretty cool job. I feel like I’ll be doing something useful for the country, not just making a paycheck.”

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.