Aqueous film-forming foam — known as AFFF— is a firefighting foam that quickly extinguishes fuel fires on ships and airplanes. The Defense Department is conducting research on this foam because of concerns about adverse health effects.

The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment wants to share five important facts about this foam and research to replace its fluorine-containing components.

1. Why does the DOD use AFFF?

Anywhere there are  large amounts of flammable materials, you need to be able to put out fires rapidly to protect human lives. AFFF is used as part of fire suppression systems and in emergency responses at chemical plants, oil refineries and rigs and notably in aviation operations.

DOD uses this firefighting foam because on ships and on aircraft, the close proximity of people, fuel and munitions can be especially dangerous. AFFF works by quickly by spreading out over the surface of the fuel, depriving the fire of oxygen, quickly extinguishing even large fires. The foam also prevents the hot fuel from reigniting. So far, only AFFF that contains fluorine chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances substances, or PFAS, are capable of putting out dangerous fuel fires fast and keeping them out.

2. Why is the department looking for replacement products?

Research has shown that the same attributes that make PFAS great for fighting fires also make them persist in the environment. There are concerns that the fluorine in these chemicals may have adverse health effects. DOD is looking for new technologies that can do the job without fluorine.

3. How is DOD funding firefighting foam replacement research?

AFFF replacement research is funded by DOD’s environmental research and demonstration programs: the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program and the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program. They work on environmental issues that are of concern to DOD and additional research is needed.

“We attempt to solve DOD’s problems, get out ahead of looming issues, work on new practices that make us more efficient and more effective while reducing environmental hazards,” said Herbert Nelson, the SERDP director.

Since fiscal year 2017, DOD has committed $11 million toward research in alternative firefighting technologies. SERDP has provided funding opportunities for basic and applied research and advanced technology development to identify solutions and technologies that use nanotechnology, polymers and more.

ESTCP has funded the testing of existing products to see if they meet the military’s standards.

4. What will DOD be doing in the future?

DOD is inviting research proposals for the development and demonstration of non-fluorine-based firefighting formulations and technologies as candidates for funding in fiscal year 2020.

SERDP has funding opportunities for basic and applied research and advanced technology development. ESTCP is seeking proposals for the demonstration and validation of environmental technologies. Ideally, officials would like to discover a “drop-in replacement” that would work with existing firetrucks, pipes and nozzles.

Researchers are also being called on to investigate the ecotoxicology of these alternatives to avoid moving to a new chemical and later discovering it has an adverse environmental or health impact.

The deadline for submitting proposals is Sept. 12.

5. What is DOD hoping to get out of these research proposals?

The goal is to find a replacement technology that’s better for the environment yet meets the strict military specifications to save lives.

SERDP is looking for innovative solutions, so proposals don’t necessarily have to meet those standards immediately. The ESTCP-funded demonstrations must simulate the real-world scenarios firefighters face and require partnerships with the military.

All researchers are encouraged to apply. “We would be happy to see projects from U.S. and foreign industry, academia and military and government laboratories,” said Robin Nissan, the SERDP/ESTCP program manager for weapons systems and platforms.

Timeline of DOD PFAS Research Efforts

In addition to researching replacements to AFFF, SERDP / ESTCP has projects on PFAS researching environmental remediation, fate and transport, ecotoxicology and analytical chemistry. Learn more from this interactive graphic:

A graphic showing Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances projects.