Every year, NASA likes to remind us how the technology that it develops is good for far more than just sending stuff into space. One of the highlights of its 2011 technology spinoff report is a fire extinguisher that uses vortex combustion technology to put out fires faster and more efficiently than ever before.
Vortex is just a cooler-sounding word for tornado, and the way vortex combustion technology works is by creating a little tornado inside the combustion chamber of a rocket engine. The tornado keeps the high-pressure liquid propellant from making direct contact with the walls of the combustion chamber as it burns, meaning that you can have a smaller, lighter, cheaper engine core that's much more reliable and easier to reuse.
A subsidiary of the NASA-funded company that developed this vortex flow system, HMA, decided to take a look and see if they could apply the same general principles to other things that rely on high-pressure liquid flow management, like fire-suppression systems. The prevailing philosophy when fighting fires as been to just try and drown the fire with as large of a volume of water as possible, but it turns out that this isn't the most efficient (or effective) way to go. By increasing water pressure and decreasing volume, it's possible to create an "energetic blanket" of ultra-fine water droplets, increasing the area of water contacting the fire by a factor of four.
One series of tests using empty houses at Vandenberg Air Force Base compared an HMA system with a 20-gallon-per-minute, 1,400 pound-per-square-inch (psi) discharge capability (at the pump) versus a standard 100-gallon-per-minute, 125 psi standard hand line--the kind that typically takes a few firemen to control. The standard line extinguished a set fire in a living room in 1 minute and 45 seconds using 220 gallons of water. The HMA system extinguished an identical fire in 17.3 seconds using 13.6 gallons--with a hose requiring only one person to manage.
Also, the high pressure vortex stream lowers fire temperatures far faster (resulting in less smoke and a safer environment), and since less water is used, less damage is caused to structures overall.
Firefighting isn't the only spinoff that NASA has helped to make happen; just this year, you can also thank it for improving air traffic control systems, designing better ventilators for critically ill patients, and helping to develop more efficient and environmentally friendly ways of burning coal for electricity.