Fighting fire with fluorine-free foams

Fluororganic compounds are common in firefighting foams due to their performance boosting effects. Some per-fluorinated substances are recognised as having adverse effects on our health and the environment. As a result, the manufacturers of firefighting foams are investing in the development of new, improved fluorine-free foam concentrates. A serious challenge since high-risk areas such as the chemical and petrochemical industry require foams with the highest possible performance. Today, European manufacturers offer a new generation of high performing fluorine-free foams for various applications.

Two of these companies share their experience in replacing fluorine-based foams with safer substances. 

“From the beginning of our existence, we were convinced of the negative impact of fluorine and focused our research into finding a good alternative without fluorinated derivatives,” says Ms Audrey Rossard, Technical Manager, from the French company BIO-EX.

BIO-EX sold their first fluorine-free foam in 2002. Their environmental challenge has been to convince their customers to choose their new generation of green products, which are 100 % fluorine free, and have proven to be effective.

 “We haven’t just made a simple substitution of the fluorinated surfactant, but have worked with all the constituents of the formula to develop the best product,” says Ms Rossard.

Collaborating with research institutes and carrying out extensive research and development ensures a successful substitution that meets the European standards for firefighting foams. The company’s main challenge was to get sufficient heat and solvent resistance for their foams with a high level of extinguishing performance and resistance to burn back. It took them three years to develop their first fluorine-free product. Now, they are able to develop new foams within one to two years.

Choose biodegradable substitutes

Contrary to foams containing fluorine, Ms Rossard explains that their fluorine-free foams do not persist in the environment, bio-accumulate or cause toxic effects. Therefore effluents do not need to be treated in a waste incineration plant.

For companies considering substituting fluorinated organic compounds, Ms Rossard recommends carrying out research with a lot of products. “Remember to be careful and choose biodegradable substitutes,” she concludes.

Suitable substitutes through extensive research

Based in Norway, Solberg Scandinavian specialises in producing fluorosurfactants and fluoropolymer-free firefighting foam concentrates. Thomas Svanevik, the General Manager explains that “industries around the world are changing faster than ever before.  Advances in technology, environmental issues, stricter regulations, and improved safety standards pose greater demand for smarter, more innovative approaches in foam fire suppression.” When looked at on a global basis, the review of fluorinated compounds continues to expand. “Regulators will ultimately determine the degree to which additional or new environmental regulations should be considered. Manufacturers of these types of products must also continue extensive research efforts to find suitable substitutes.”

Commitment to environmental responsibility

Solberg considers their non-fluorinated foam concentrates as their flagship product, suitable for many different high-hazard high-risk applications. “While we do manufacture and understand the current market for fluorinated foam concentrates will take time to convert, our research and development emphasis is on non-fluorinated foam products. These fluorine-free firefighting foams have many of the same performance capabilities that fluorinated foam concentrates have,” Mr Svanevik says.

He explains that using non-fluorinated foam concentrates should be a priority for the entire firefighting industry and not just foam manufacturers. Consequently, the industry has become more aware of the life cycle for products placed in the environment. “If we, as a company, can provide firefighting foam products that reduce impact on the environment for use in the firefighting industry, it’s good for them, it’s good for the environment and you know it’s good for us as well”. 

Background

The first fluorine containing foam agent was developed in the 1960s. It contained fluorinated surfactants that helped the foam rapidly flow over flaming liquids, cooling and extinguishing fires. It proved to be very efficient.

However, it became clear that perfluorinated compounds such as PFOS and PFOA are extremely persistent in the environment, and toxicological studies have linked the chemicals to serious negative effects on human health. Their use in the EU has been restricted since 2006 and the Stockholm Convention listed PFOS and its related substances as persistent organic pollutants that are to be phased out. A further restriction on the manufacture, use and marketing of PFOA and its related substances, under REACH, was also adopted in 2017 by the European Commission.

 

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