Researchers at Virginia Tech have received an award for $1.2 million to create an electronic molecular toolbox that will support the creation of a firefighting foam. This environmentally friendly substance will be the first of its kind, as there are none currently in the aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) category, which is used by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), airlines, automobile corporations and other large industries.

The funding was made possible by the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program. The initiative for creating environmentally friendly firefighting foam came to be when perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were seen in a negative light and were facing bans. Studies on PFAS show long-term negative effects on human and wildlife health due to how long these “forever chemicals” take to break down. With the DOD ready to call a final halt to these substances in 2023, the need for eco-foam with high performance fire suppression is critical.

How do AFFFs extinguish fires?

These substances work by blanketing the fire with a layer of foam. This stops the release of hazardous vapors, smothers the fire and aids in reignition prevention. Firefighters need to be able to cross through dispensed foam to provide aid to those caught in the fire.

Brian Lattimer, professor of mechanical engineering and main project investigator states "Firefighting foams are not only used by DOD, but also at airports all over the world. In a situation such as a plane crash, time for passenger rescue is measured in seconds. It is critical that environmentally friendly foams can suppress fires as efficiently as AFFF to ensure life safety." Scientist works with foam sample in the EXTREME lab. Credit: Alex Parrish/ Virginia Tech Scientist works with foam sample in the EXTREME lab. Credit: Alex Parrish/ Virginia Tech

Currently there is nothing on the market that comes close to the effectiveness of AFFF that could be considered environmentally friendly. With a deadline from the DOD rapidly approaching, his group, alongside others will be experimenting and running simulations to develop a final product.

"Through this research, we hope to provide substantial evidence for the chemical structures that reduce fuel transport through foam," said Lattimer. "This data could provide chemists with tools to identify new solutions to achieve superior fire suppression performance, hopefully even above what has been used in the past."

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