Science 3 min read

New Hydrogel-Based Fire Retardant Designed to Prevent Wildfire

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Image courtesy of Pixabay

A team of Stanford researchers recently tested a new hydrogel-based fire retardant as a preventative treatment for wildfire.

Wildfires are a common problem in the United States. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there were 58, 083 wildfires in 2018, burning about 7.2 million acres.

As many as 90 percent of these wildfires are human-caused, says the U.S. Department of Interior. It’s often a result of activities such as leaving campfires unattended, discarded cigarettes, burning of debris, and intentional act of arson.

Experts have theorized that prophylactic treatment of these areas could provide a highly targeted approach to wildfire prevention. However, creating a long-lasting environmentally-friendly material for this purpose has remained a challenge, and here’s why.

Wildfire management generally involves either fire retardants or suppressants.

Fire crews use suppressants such as superabsorbent polymers and gels that carry water to fight an active fire. Similarly, these gels are also useful as short term retardants for fending off an encroaching fire.

There’s just one problem.

When the water entrapped in these gels evaporates, it loses its effectiveness. Unfortunately, that occurs in less than an hour during an average wildland fire condition.

So, a team of Stanford researchers developed a new cellulose-based gel-like fluid to address this issue. According to the team, the fluid stays on the target vegetation regardless of the environmental exposure – whether it’s wind or rain.

In a statement to the press, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, Eric Appel said:

“This has the potential to make wildland firefighting much more proactive, rather than reactive. What we do now is monitor wildfire-prone areas and wait with bated breath for fires to start, then rush to put them out.”

How Effective is the Hydrogel-based Fire Retardant At Preventing Wildfires?

The researchers worked with CalFire to test the retardant material on chamise and grass – two vegetation types where fire typically starts.

Not only did the treatment provide complete protection against fire, but it remained active even after half an inch of rainfall. Under the same condition, a commercial fire retardant would offer little or no fire protection.

Now, the researchers and CalFire have involved the California Department of Transportation in their testing. Together, they intend to assess how the hydrogel-based retardant would perform on the high-risk roadside – the origin of dozens of wildfires every year.

The Stanford team developed the fire retardant gel using non-toxic materials such as those found in food, drug, cosmetic, and agricultural products. While the material can offer months of protection to vegetation, it eventually degrades.

“We hope these new materials can open the door to identifying and treating high-risk areas to protect people’s lives and livelihoods,” said Appel.

The researchers published their findings on the hydrogel retardant in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 

Read More: Wildfires to Produce More Tarballs due to Climate Change

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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