Passing the test with Fomtec

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Dr Jan-Erik Jönsson, Chief Chemist at Fomtec, discusses the research and development of firefighting foam

How have the major changes in firefighting foam at Fomtec affected you?

My tenure at Fomtec centred on transitions in foam chemistry.

In the early years my time was devoted to leading the reformulation of all our fluorinated foams to use C6 fluoro-surfactants.

Even then there were conversations about making high performance Class B foams totally free of fluoro-surfactants.

I still remember my very first day with Fomtec because we had a fire test session at the local fire department and we tested an AFFF and a fluorine free foam.

There was a huge difference in performance with the AFFF completely outperforming the fluorine free product.

As the project to reformulate and approve the new C6 based foams progressed Fomtec improved our laboratory and firefighting equipment, and carried out many lab tests and full scale approval tests en route to achieving full transition to C6 foams by the end of 2014.

We learned a great deal about relating lab scale tests to fire performance and determined that these lab scale tests were not reliable indicators of performance, and full scale tests were required for assessment of performance of new formulations.

The formulation and development of firefighting foams involve much trial and error.

Through our investment in R&D we learned from our mistakes as much as from our successes.

In reformulating with C6 chemistry we learnt that success was relatively straightforward as long as we achieved the right combination of fluoro-surfactants in the correct quantities.

With SFFFs, it’s a completely different ball game.

Our reformulation ideas require creative thinking “outside the box” ….sometimes well outside.

Why has Fomtec conducted so many fire tests as part of its “Enviro Programme”?

We have always required, and still do, a plethora of tests to develop the products in the R&D-stage.

When a prototype is ready to launch there are many different applications to assess, from top side to sprinkler as well as different foam qualities that needs to be tested.

t’s crucial for us to understand our products’ limits to effectively guide our customers in selecting the appropriate foam type, application density, and foam generation equipment.

These fire tests give us the confidence to advise our clients.

How relevant are the existing fire performance test standards for fluorine free foams?

It depends on which standard we look at.

Take UL and FM for example; with both it is necessary to do fire tests with different foam qualities that relate to the actual foam qualities obtained with full scale equipment.

Hence, you prove that the foam works with that foam quality.

If you look at sprinkler applications, you need to do fire test with sprinklers and you are just approved with the sprinklers you test.

Regarding EN 13565-2, it doesn’t refer back to fire test results using actual equipment.

It just relates to what fire rating you get in the EN 1568 test standard.

The latter standard you test with a standard UNI86-nozzle and perform the fire test with the foam quality achieved with that test nozzle only and you don’t have to adapt the foam quality to any full scale equipment, you test with the quality you get from the UNI86 as if this was universal.

We recognise the importance of understanding the foam qualities essential for achieving fire performance on a full-scale basis.

Moreover, it doesn’t say anything about sprinkler fire tests.

It just say that you should refer to the manufacturer and not more than that.

I find this concerning.

From all the fire tests we have done we know that a foam is not suitable for sprinkler tests just because it has passed an EN 1568 top side fire test.

A sprinkler application is so different from top side test that you can’t give any sprinkler recommendations from this test alone.

Can you elaborate on the standards for foam through sprinklers?

In Germany there is a VdS standard and we are currently in approval with this standard but for us the most relevant are FM 5130 and UL 162.

We have focused on FM 5130 since we believe it is more challenging and more relevant for real life installation.

In FM 5130 we must test with different sprinklers at different heights; a low height, and a high height, to obtain the approval.

With UL 162 the height is fixed about 4,2 m, which to me is a limitation and we don’t get to know how the foam act at low and high heights.

Are there other challenges you face with fluorine-free foams?

During the development of our Enviro range, we consistently observed varying performances across different fuels, particularly evident when assessing different Polar Solvents.

We found that some fuels actively destroyed the foam blanket even for our Enviro products that had achieved excellent ratings with acetone, ethanol and IPA.

The first polar solvent we discovered with this feature was MEK.

Oddly enough, MEK is very easy to deal with when using AFFF-ARs, but removing the fluoro-polymer from the foam made this a very difficult fuel to extinguish.

At normal application densities MEK destroys the blanket leaving an open fuel surface.

It can be overcome by increased application density and/or increased mixing ratio.

However, this was an eye opener and a concern for us.

It meant that we cannot just recommend application densities based on test results by IPA, acetone etc.

Hence, we realised that we needed to find a safe way to give our customers relevant information about densities and without doing fire tests on all possible polars.

This is not feasible for two main reasons.

First, the amount of polars on the market is enormous and secondly a lot of them are poisonous and not suitable for handling on a fire ground.

We initiated a project to test foam degradation in the lab across 50-60 different polar solvents.

 Based on the results form these tests and the physical and chemical nature of the polars, we could establish a model that predicts if the polar is a foam destroyer or not.

The model has been verified with several new polars to secure the prediction.

Today, the prediction of the model is 100% to identify foam killers like MEK.

Today we have a database with over 1200 polars possible to assess.

This article was originally published in the November 2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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