Innovative gel douses an entrepreneurial fire

Spring 2017
BUSINESS

At first glance the YouTube video looks like yet another reminder that some people have too much time on their hands. And in this case one of those hands is covered in an opaque gel, while the other holds a blowtorch with the flame set directly on that hand for what seems like far too long.

Yet this is not some teenage triumph of sheer nerve over common sense but instead a dramatic demonstration of a chemical innovation that could make life much easier for firefighters and the people they help.

The gel has been developed by a small company called FireRein, which operates out of a modest industrial park in the eastern Ontario town of Napanee. A pair of local men have maintained the business since 2012, when they first enlisted the help of GreenCentre Canada to help them realize their vision of a firefighting gel that was non-toxic and environmentally safe and sustainable.

Zackery Hodgen, FireRein’s vice-president, was impressed by his first encounter with this new agent, which was demonstrated for him by applying it to a flat cardboard box that was then set alight. Everything burned up except those parts that had been treated.

“My eyes went huge and my jaw dropped and I said “Okay, that’s all I need to see’,” he recalls.

Hodgen had trained at the Ontario Fire College, subsequently tackling forest fires in Manitoba and also serving as a paramedic in northern Alberta. He had been working as a firefighter for the City of Belleville until 2016, when he resigned to focus on FireRein full time. He had already teamed up with Quincy Emmons, who brought his own 20 years of volunteer firefighter experience to the undertaking.

Their shared priority for the gel was ensuring it was composed of environmentally benign ingredients.. Such a formulation contrasts starkly with fire retardants in common use, such as organobromine compounds or perfluoroalkanes (PFAS) contained in various types of foams. Because they are used in combination with water that ultimately makes its way into municipal treatment plants, these persistent chemicals can be found in lakes and rivers across North America, with especially heavy concentrations in the Great Lakes basin.

The long term health implications of such pollution are still being studied, but firefighters get intense, regular exposure to these chemicals during the course of their work, which could be a major factor in the serious health problems that dog members of this profession. Addressing this all too familiar problem gave Emmons and Hodgen added incentive to bring the new gel to market.

“I knew what I wanted to see at the end of the hose,” says Emmons, adding that it would also appeal firefighters working in rural locations without access to any water other than what they bring on a truck. The gel would significantly enhance the effectiveness of that limited supply, making it possible to put out a fire that the same amount of water alone could not extinguish.

After obtaining financial support from regional economic development agencies and trying to identify a suitable industrial partner, the pair took over the task of refining the gel to meet the specific needs of firefighters. That meant packaging it in a form that would remain stable and active until it was mixed with water, when it should be ready for immediate use. Unfortunately, the initial formulation was not so cooperative, as it soon emulsified into a hard solid that would be all but useless in the field.

Neither of the men had a background in chemistry that could help them crack this problem, but they found an expert mentor in Rui Resendes, a former GreenCentre executive who earlier this year became FireRein’s CEO.

“Our starting point was a formulation that satisfied a proof of concept but it was light-years from being commercially relevant, both from a cost perspective and a field applicability perspective,” he explains. “We had a very limited palette to work from. We wanted to make sure that whatever we did wasn’t going to compromise one of our primary objectives, which was to make this 100% bio-based and food-grade”

Resendes therefore began investigating techniques used by the food industry to stabilize the dispersion of polymers. Over the course of a year they worked steadily on different variations of the gel in the Napanee shop he dubbed their “Canadian Tire lab”.

“We looked at everything from how to keep bread from going stale to how people keep mayonnaise and peanut butter dispersed,” he says. “Because we’re essentially doing this in a glorified kitchen, we can’t start using controlled substances. We can’t start using anything with toxicity concerns or fire hazards or explosive hazards. We have to use stuff that the average baker would have in their kitchen.”

The resulting material can be stored at least a year in a drum, with just enough emulsification to form an oil seal on top so that water does not prematurely mix with it. Above all, it still qualifies as food-grade, made up of materials that are essentially edible. This spring it obtained certification from the United States Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred Progam as well as safety certification from Underwriters Laboratory Canada’s EcoLogo Program as a 100% bio-source.

And for Emmons and Hodgen, perhaps the most satisfying milestone came in April, when they began training their first working customers — members of the Stone Mills Township Fire Department, just north of Napanee. Resendes regards this accomplishment as an example of the often elusive mechanics of entrepreneurial innovation.

“It’s not just firefighters trying to build a business and it’s not just a business guy trying to understand what firefighters need,” he concludes. “It’s the powerful combination of those two worlds, matching the experience and the competencies needed to build, develop, and mobilize a product, as well as matching with people who are living in the market that product is trying to serve.”