This flame-retardant gel can protect plants for months

A tanker drops retardant above Bradbury at Spinks Canyon Road and Tall Pine Road during the Complex Fires that have burned over a combined 5,000 acres above Azusa, Duarte and Bradbury, Calif., on Tuesday, June 21, 2016. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/ Pasadena Star-News)

Very often in science people strive to do one thing and by accident invent something completely different (think penicillin and artificial sweetener). This is also such a case, where scientist Eric Appel accidentally invented a substance that is a completely flame-retardant gel and can potentially protect huge areas from wildfires.

Interestingly, this flame-retardant gel was accidentally invented when Appel was trying to save people from disease, not fire. He usually spends his time developing gels and other substances that are good transporters of medicine into the human bodies. In use you would want to give a patient antibodies against a specific disease, and inject the gel into them with enough medication that would release this medicine over a long period of time. So if used in a large at-risk population, you could fight the epidemic more effectively.

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Over a friendly conversation about each other’s work, Appel’s brother-in-law, Jesse Acosta, asked whether it would be possible to use these gels by filling them up with flame-retardant used by his fire prevention service. The retardant he referred to was the red clouds you usually see planes dropping over fires and at-risk forestry. According to Acosta, the substance is effective but fleeting, blowing away in the wind or washing away in a rainstorm.

Appel and his colleagues got to work and now this environmentally friendly gel can be used for just that purpose. They published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where they detailed how their goo can act as a delivery medium to coat vegetation with flame retardant, and keep it there for the whole fire season. If adopted widely the gel could become a sort of vaccine against wildfires.

“The funny thing is that the engineering requirements for delivering a drug in a body for a very long period of time are pretty darn similar to the engineering requirements for maintaining a fire retardant on target vegetation for months,” says Appel. “It needs to be safe, it needs to be totally non-toxic, and it needs to not harm the function of the thing you’re encapsulating.”

Appel has created a start-up that will commercialize this solution, hopefully helping us fight against ever increasing wildfires around the world.