A new non-toxic gel developed by researchers at Stanford University could be sprayed directly onto wooded areas to reduce the severity of wildfires. According to its creators, the fluid could be applied to “ignition-prone areas” ahead of peak fire season. In doing so, it could serve as both a lifesaving and cost-saving technology to solve a growing problem in places like California.
“This has the potential to make wildland firefighting much more proactive, rather than reactive,” Eric Appel, assistant professor of Materials Science and Engineering in the Stanford School of Engineering, said in a statement. “What we do now is monitor wildfire-prone areas and wait with bated breath for fires to start, then rush to put them out.”
In the past two years, some of the largest and most destructive wildfires in California’s history swept the region. Federal firefighting costs in the United States in 2018 exceeded $3 billion. That is the highest total on record in the U.S.
Stanford’s gel-like fluid is composed of nontoxic chemicals that are already used in food products, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Unlike some of the other existing firefighting gels used to put out fires, the new material can last for a long time. Current approaches involving water-containing gels tend to be very short-term since the water in them evaporates within hours.
The material was recently successfully put through its paces on a grassy roadside area near San Luis Obispo, California. The test was carried out under the supervision of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Testing found that the treatment provided total fire protection even after half an inch of rainfall. Typical commercial fire retardant formulations offer little or no fire protection in the same environmental conditions.
“[We have developed] a viscoelastic carrier fluid for existing fire retardants to enhance retention on common wildfire-prone vegetation through environmental exposure and weathering,” the researchers write in their paper’s abstract. “These materials enable a prophylactic wildfire-prevention strategy, where areas at high risk of wildfire can be treated and protected from ignitions throughout the peak fire season.”
The paper describing the project was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.