Researchers from the University of Maryland who were studying fire tornadoes have inadvertently discovered a new kind of flame. Called a "blue whirl," the unique vortex fire is detailed in a paper published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"A fire tornado has long been seen as this incredibly scary, destructive thing. But, like electricity, can you harness it for good? If we can understand it, then maybe we can control and use it," Michael Gollner, an assistant professor of engineering who co-authored the paper, said in a release.

The team stumbled upon the blue whirl after generating a lab-controlled fire tornado over water. While traditional fire whirls are generally extremely turbulent and bright red or orange, the water-based version exhibited an intense blue color and strong stability.

"Blue in the whirl indicates there is enough oxygen for complete combustion, which means less or no soot, and is therefore a cleaner burn," engineering professor and co-author Elaine Oran said.

Such an efficient, soot-free flame could offer an eco-friendly way to deal with oil spills. Traditional methods usually involve burning the oil on the surface of the water, generating harmful emissions. If a blue whirl could be replicated on a large scale, it could burn the oil at a more efficient and cleaner rate.

"Further understanding of the complex, multiphase physics occurring during blue-whirl combustion offers exciting possibilities for the future," the researchers write, "and may therefore lead to the development of novel methods for fuel-spill remediation and high-efficiency combustion."

You can see an example of the University of Maryland blue whirl phenomena in the video below.