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New Fire Extinguishing Agent
April 26, 2012   
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The devil is in the details. Such is the case when it comes to extinguishing fires in forests, moorland, storage facilities with pressed waste paper, textile warehouses and coal dust. The details are in how the extinguishing agent works. The agent developed by Polish researchers prevents water from being repelled by the burning material; instead, it soaks into it as if it were a sponge.

Forest and moorland fires are among the most dangerous. It is difficult to put them out, especially at a time of drought when fires spread at the speed of a racecar. Fires are of course a danger to human settlements, while the acrid smoke reduces visibility and may cause road accidents. The success of firefighting operations usually depends on luck, response time and the skills of firefighters.

Fires of moors, with peat deposits of partially decayed organic matter, are quite different from forest fires. The peat layers may be more than 10 meters deep. When fire goes underground, it may smolder in the peat for months or even years. It takes as much time to put it out. This is what people living in the surroundings of Moscow experienced in the summer of 2010 when the local forests and moors were on fire for many weeks. The fire reached several meters underground. The firefighting planes, and firemen and soldiers working round the clock on the ground, were of little help. It was only after water pipes up to 20 kilometers long were laid and water from the Oka River was directed to the fire-ravaged area that the conflagration was finally put out.

It would be much more effective to battle such fires if one could change the behavior of water. The problem is that water, tons of which are poured during a firefighting operation, does not soak the smoldering ground as well as might be expected. It empties from porous surfaces quite quickly and barely penetrates the ground. The reason is the high surface tension of water. To deal with this problem, firefighters add agents lowering surface tension to water. Most of the agents used produce a long-lasting foam. The foam takes away the heat from the burning material and isolates it. However, the foam releases water quite slowly and consequently is not very efficient in extinguishing fierce and extensive fires in the open air.

This is why Polish scientists were searching for an agent which would reduce surface tension but would not foam too much. The agent—developed by the Józef Tuliszkowski Fire Protection Scientific Research Center in Józefów outside Warsaw, in conjunction with the Institute of Heavy Organic Synthesis, the Poznań University of Technology, and the Forestry Research Institute in Sękocin Stary near Warsaw—has such properties. It is composed of alkylpolyglycoside surfactants, sulfated ethoxylated fatty alcohols, organic solvents and water. These ingredients are non-toxic and biodegradable. They make it much easier for water to penetrate the interstices and pores in a burning material and wet it more efficiently. It has been proven in practice that a 0.5-percent solution of the agent wets a surface 40 times more efficiently than plain water. The agent also forms foam, which isolates the burning material. The foam does not last long. It quickly turns back into a liquid, which penetrates the pores and additionally wets the burning surface.

The researchers tested the agent on peat and wood. It put out the flames faster than other extinguishing and wetting products. Its effectiveness was also proven by a firefighting test operation with the participation of foresters, a fire brigade, and a firefighting plane. The operation was carried out in a young pine forest designated for clearance near the central city of Bełchatów.

The agent is also suitable for use in creating fire lines, which are wet strips of land designed to stop or slow the progress of fire. A test fire line created with the use of this agent stopped the spread of the fire for five minutes and 40 seconds, two minutes longer than a line created using only water. The difference does not seem significant, but it should be kept in mind that sometimes seconds matter when a fire strikes. The agent may find application not only in putting out forest and moorland fires but also fires in collieries, coal dust, textile warehouses, and waste paper storage facilities.

The research project was financed by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. The agent and its production process are protected by a patent. It has won recognition at Polish and foreign invention exhibitions, winning a gold medal at the IWIS International Innovation Exhibition in Warsaw and a medal at the World Competition for Chemistry Inventions in Warsaw awarded by the International Federation of Inventors’ Associations.

Anna Łyczewska
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