Industry Watch

Into the thick of it

EarthClean’s innovative fire suppressant is eco-friendly — but it’s winning converts because it’s effective

Scott Bocklund, president of St. Paul–based EarthClean Corp., recently spent two days with a host and crew from the Public Broadcasting series "Nova," taping an upcoming segment on "materials that will shape our future."

In the show's judgment, one of those materials is EarthClean's product TetraKO, a patented, cornstarch-based formula the company says is the world's only eco-friendly manufactured fire suppressant. It seems that the same thickening properties that make cornstarch an indispensable ingredient for gravy also make it an effective weapon to knock down fires that threaten lives and property.

The patented "water enhancer" has unique heat-calorie absorption properties to attack, suppress, and contain fires, thus reducing firefighters' exposure to flame, heat, and toxic fumes. It's a biodegradable and non-toxic alternative to the synthetic-detergent chemical foams traditionally used to fight fires, and to retardants based on phosphorous and ammonia dioxide. TetraKO is the first fire-suppression product to earn the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "Design for the Environment" recognition under the industrial/institutional category "Fire Fighting Product."

Another advantage of TetraKO, the company says, is that it does not require the purchase of a traditional foam-spraying system, which can cost up to $30,000.

A single 12.5-pound container of TetraKO powder will mix with water to create 250 gallons. When pumped through pressurized fire hoses, the product converts to a free-flowing liquid. After it leaves the nozzle, it converts to a thick gel and absorbs the heat of the fire. The gelling agent also gives it a "stick and stay" property, so it remains where applied rather than running off, as untreated water would. In a building fire, it will adhere to vertical surfaces as well as to interior ceilings.

TetraKO has been tested by a number of fire departments in the Upper Midwest and elsewhere in the U.S. In trials, it reduced a fire's upper thermal layer (the hottest part of a fire) by 58 percent, from 1,079 degrees Fahrenheit to 448. In the mid-thermal layer (where firefighters work), it showed a 79 percent heat reduction. Its heat-calorie absorption is about 10 times more effective than water or foam, the company says.

Nyle Zikmund, chief of the Spring Lake Park–Blaine–Mounds View Fire Department  one of the largest in the Twin Cities area  is an enthusiastic believer in the effectiveness of TetraKO.

After viewing video and live demonstrations, Zikmund's department was among the first to try the product. He says its effectiveness in extinguishing a number of different types of fires engendered the same "holy crap" reaction by the chief and his men. "This was originally pitched to me as an environmentally safe product," he says. "But they have something special in regard to caloric heat absorption. I've never seen any other product with anywhere near its ‘knockdown' capability. It will allow us to increase firefighter safety by doing more defensive firefighting from outside of a building, and cut in half the amount of time we have to spend on a fire scene."

Other firefighting professionals agree. In March 2012, TetraKO technology was acknowledged in an extensive white paper by the Technology Council of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) entitled "Next Generation Water Enhancer for Fire Protection and Suppression in Wildland and Structural Applications."

In the great tradition of American inventions, TetraKO was created and perfected in garages – including the Woodbury garage of Terry Lund, a 24-year veteran firefighter.

The product's origins date back slightly more than a decade, to a brainstorm by the late Bob Hume, a retired chemist and former head of R&D for 3M. Hume and a retired H.B. Fuller chemist, Jim Hagquist, frequently met to brainstorm product ideas, and one topic was possible applications of starches. They talked about using starch to suppress aircraft fires.

Eventually they met Woodbury firefighter Terry Lund and his father, Rod Lund, a retired 3M engineer. Terry Lund immediately saw the idea's potential, and he and his father helped the chemists refine their technology and develop product demonstrations. Terry Lund spent a couple of years doing R&D in his garage with jars of powdered starches, testing various formulations' ability to extinguish a blowtorch flame. He also used a 55-gallon barrel and pump to simulate the product's use by fire trucks.

After the inventors developed an effective formulation that could also be "scaled up" into large quantities, Terry Lund watched a demonstration at an abandoned-house fire. "There's no comparison," he says. "Our gel is far superior to any type of foam in extinguishing Class A fires [those involving common combustibles such as wood, cloth, rubber and some plastics]."

By 2007, the four partners had a promising product but no way to market it. They sought the help of experienced entrepreneur Doug Ruth, who founded EarthClean Corp. in March 2009. Ruth was originally brought onboard to help find a company to produce it, but he became so sold on the product's commercial potential he launched EarthClean to acquire the intellectual property rights to produce and market it. (Ruth left the company earlier this year.)

In 2010, EarthClean won the grand prize in the Minnesota Cup entrepreneur competition and also received its first $1 million in financing. In 2011, Twin Cities–area fire departments began beta-testing TetraKO, and soon after the company lined up a West Coast distributor.

Over time, EarthClean hopes to develop and market more green-chemistry products, says Bocklund, who joined the company in 2011. (TetraKO, LLC is the name of EarthClean's wholly owned subsidiary.)

Starting to gel

EarthClean has developed and refined the TetraKO product with feedback from firefighters. For instance, while mixing starch and water when making gravy is no big deal, it's problematic when scaling up in the every-second-counts world of fire-fighting. "We told them right away ‘A powder is not gonna work,'" Zikmund says. Mixing TetraKO with water in advance of a fire isn't a good solution either, since, once mixed with water, the product has a "tank life" of only about three months.

Taking advice from firefighters, EarthClean will soon introduce the product in gel form, along with a mechanical system that will inject it into fire hoses at fire scenes.

EarthClean used grants from the Minnesota-based Agricultural Utilization Research Institute to help fund additional R&D. Their research found that another "natural" biodegradable ingredient  soybean oil  could be used to create a concentrated, liquid version of the product.

Meanwhile, the powder version will be useful for fighting wildfires, since the U.S. Forest Service and similar agencies traditionally batch-mix their fire-fighting chemicals, Bocklund says. EarthClean is in the process of gaining Forest Service approval for the use of TetraKO.

TetraKO's ability to stick to surfaces makes it useful for coating fuels (trees, brush, grass) ahead of a wildfire through tanker drops, apparatuses, and handheld backpack application. It was successfully tested by a California Interagency Hotshot Crews team that included firefighters from Los Angeles County and California's Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority; it also performed well in fighting a wildfire in Wisconsin.

In late 2012, TetraKO introduced its TurboSkid Wildlife Protection Unit, consisting of a 200-gallon tank and pump designed for placement on the flatbed of a pickup truck or on a trailer. It can rapidly mix TetraKO en route to a wildfire.

EarthClean is developing a commercialclass system for homeowners in urban locales. Before evacuation, it enables homeowners to "self-coat" a home much faster than cheaper consumer versions that hook up to a garden hose and can take hours to properly coat a structure, the company says.

Using two local contract manufacturers to produce TetraKO, EarthClean will reach the $1 million mark in sales this year. Bocklund says bigger things are in store in 2014, when the company will launch its gel product, along with a mechanical system to inject it into fire lines.

Bocklund says the company has developed a national and international network of distributors interested in helping market TetraKO. The most interested group, he says, is the people on the firefighting frontlines: "There are a lot of municipal fire departments waiting for us to come out with our liquid mechanism for TetraKO."