King Cobra snake

Dear Evil Engineer: Could I keep my video meetings on-brand with fire‑breathing cobras?

Image credit: Dreamstime

A locked-in villain seeks guidance on presenting a professional appearance during conference calls.

Dear Evil Engineer,

Like many others, I will be working remotely for the indefinite future. I decided that doing up my home office to look more on-brand would be a good investment, given the number of video conferences I will have. I have arranged dramatic lighting, hung a faux skeleton from the chandelier, and mounted dozens of snake tanks on the wall facing my desk. Unfortunately, the spitting cobras I bought to fill the tanks have been a real disappointment. All they seem to do is sleep, eat, and defecate. When they do spit, the bone-chilling effect is rather lost on webcam.

In order to give the right impression of a enterprising villain committed to presentation, I think my snakes need some extra oomf. Would it be possible to make them spit fire rather than venom? It would certainly enhance my video conferencing effectiveness to have fire-breathing cobras in the background.


A quarantined villain


Dear villain,

The first rule for a successful virtual meeting is presentation. You wouldn’t wear a stained sweatshirt while meeting your stakeholders in person, so why would you hold a video conference with them from a squalid studio more appropriate for an arts student than a professional villain? Your commitment to brand consistency is admirable, and I understand your frustration that your serpentine recruits are failing to meet their KPIs.

Although I am not entirely convinced that there is a way to make these cobras breathe fire in a way that is safe, reliable, and dramatic, I may be able to suggest a way to mimic this.

People often cite the bombardier beetle when discussing “real-life dragons”, and certainly they are the closest natural selection has fumbled towards firebreathing. This bug has two chambers in its abdomen which store hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide.

When threatened, they can open a valve and squirt these chemicals into a vestibule, where they mix with a catalytic enzyme. This results in a dramatic exothermic reaction and the expulsion of a puff of vapours at nearly 100°C. Impressive though it is for such a small creature, it is not true firebreathing, and I think we could engineer something better.

Making your cobras breathe fire requires oxygen, ignition, and fuel. Oxygen is not an issue; there is enough in air to support combustion, so you only need to worry about fuel and ignition. Let’s begin by thinking about the fuel.

Spitting cobras – as I’m sure you’ll know – store venom in glands behind their eyes. In order to spit venom, they squeeze the compressor muscles behind the glands, pushing venom into their hollow, tube-like fangs and through forward-facing holes in their tips. I suggest that you empty your cobra’s venom glands and fill them with fuel.

There are plenty of flammable substances you could use, although the best choice would be something liquid – for a well-controlled spurt – and not too flammable. Gaseous fuels like methane would need to be compressed inside the snake’s body and often smell offputting.

Something extremely flammable – a pyrophoric substance, or other extremely flammable substances like diethyl ether, which ignite in air spontaneously or at the slightest friction – would be a terrible idea for you and your snakes. Nothing would look worse for you than your home office burning down in the background of an important conference call.

There are some liquid fuels which would put the snakes’ lives at risk in less immediate ways, such as ethanol or highly purified paraffin. These are the fuels that firebreathers sometimes use, often in meticulously prepared mixtures to maximise safety and visual effect.

Injecting paraffin into a spitting cobra’s venom gland is a walk in the park, however, compared with the challenge of igniting the fuel. This requires placing a small flame in front of the snake’s mouth, and I see no other way of doing this – given that your snakes are not trained – than building a sort of headdress which holds a small tealight or lighter in front of its mouth (you could potentially use biotelemetry to trigger the flame only when the wearer squeezes its compressor muscles).

I’m sure you can see that this has the potential to go very wrong, and not much potential to go right. Even if you found a way to keep these attachments on – such as by attaching them surgically – they would hinder your snakes in all their activities.

The sensible alternative is to replace your cobras with animatronic cobras and fit them with flamethrowers. This is the perfect use of animatronics; these snakes are intended to perform a limited role which would be implausible and dangerous for real animals.

There is already a body of research on engineering snake-inspired robots that could travel down narrow utility lines to perform inspections or assist in search-and-rescue operations. Static animatronic snakes are already commercially available from companies such as Jacksonville-based Sally Dark Rides and Zigong-based My Dinosaurs.

A model like this would be an ideal base; you would then only have to retrofit a flamethrower mechanism inside its head. While not exactly straightforward, this is more plausible than the alternatives. A relatively compact flamethrower such as Throwflame’s TF-19 Wasp – designed for incorporation into drones – could probably be embedded into the head and upper body of the animatronic snake. This model also allows for remote ignition, allowing you to trigger your firebreathing snakes at the most dramatic moments during your conference calls.

Remember to take precautions to keep yourself and your belongings safe while operating your fire-breathing cobra. Contain the animatronic inside a tank of thick, fire-resistant glass, and use sand as a substrate instead of wood chips.

The Evil Engineer

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