Ed’s note: Tech fights fires!


I love that technology can change the way we live, bringing benefits to our health, our environment and our businesses.

Don’t get me wrong – I realise that on the flip side of that coin are numerous negative consequences, but today, I’m wanting to focus on something that could potentially be life-changing – especially for those utilities that are battling with one of the most devastating challenges – fire!

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Reading through our website this morning, I came across an article which made my eyes sparkle (a particular challenge first thing in the morning and before my first cup of coffee). The article focuses on a gel which could make vegetation flame retardant for many months, saving lives and homes and potentially save utilities from bankruptcy.

Developed by Eric Appel, a materials scientist at Stanford University, the gel acts as a delivery medium which coats vegetation with flame retardant. Unlike the powder version of the same retardant, the gel keeps the retardent in place for a lot longer than the powder version which is washed away with the next rains.

The gel is said to be environmentally safe – Appel’s work is to develop long term drug dispersal systems for use in the human body – being synthesised from cellulose polymers (a plant derivative) and colloidal silica (similar to sand).

Current flame retardants are only useful in fighting existing fires – not in preventing them. This innovation, however, could completely change that dynamic.

Using a mixture of ammonium polyphosphate (APP) – the current ‘go-to’ flame retardant – and the gel, research has shown that more than 50% of the retardant sticks to vegetation – and continued to work even after being exposed to half an inch of rain. Even better – grass that has been treated with the mixture refused to ignite. Just think what this could mean!

This could be a great solution to the problems plaguing high fire areas such as California, parts of Portugal and Cape Town’s fynbos kingdom and could completely change the face of vegetation management for utilities.

Anyone who is paying even scant attention to world news will know about the devastating fires that have swept through California, becoming more and more severe as the year’s pass. In just this last year, over 5,136 fires have been recorded [Cal Fire and the US Forest Service], totalling an estimated 151,681 acres [61,383 ha] of burned land.

Anyone in the utility sector is no doubt equally aware of the fire troubles that have plagued utilities in that State, PG&E in particular.

The strategy PG&E is currently utilising to help prevent fires is to cut off power to areas where high winds and low moisture are recorded or predicted. This is obviously not a sustainable solution for either PG&E or Californian consumers. During the week starting 23 September, PG&E cut off power to more than 75,000 residents and in the aftermath of devastating fires such as in Butte county — in which 86 people died in 2018 — consumers are likely to be tolerant, but that tolerance will fade as quickly as memories and soon, there will be backlash about the lack of services or power outages during the hot, windy summer.

I am certainly hopeful that Appel, who is hoping to commercialise the opportunity through his start-up, will be successful in bringing his fire-retardant gel to utilities all around the world.

What do you think? Is this a viable solution? Could this be what utilities in high-risk areas need? Or is this potentially just another ‘damp’ squib? Let us know what you think!

Wishing you a fire-free week!