Halon and HFC-based liquids are being phased out as fire-suppression tools due to their GHG emissions; but new alternatives are coming to market which are likely to prove more effective, without the environmental concerns
The EU is among a number of regulatory bodies phasing out the use of fire suppression liquids that contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The original fire suppression agent has always been water and in the age of sail, it was ideal. But with the advent of the combustion engine it proved problematic as, when applied to burning petroleum, it encourages a fire to spread; water also destroys electronics.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) and halon derivatives were the first widely used commercial fire suppression solutions, gaining popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. They are highly effective, electrically non-conductive, do not leave any residue and, as compressed gases, storage is not a major issue. Unfortunately, halon was found to be a high ozone depleting chemical; as a result, production was banned in 1990.
In the search for alternatives, CO2 gained prominence. However, it has three significant drawbacks: it is a greenhouse gas; it requires a large number of cylinders; and it is potentially fatal if breathed at fire suppression concentrations.
In the 1990s, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) rose to dominance as a fire suppression solution. Near ideal for marine applications, HFCs’s derivative HFC227 is fast, effective and clean. However, just like halon and CO2, HFC227 is a GHG and contributes to global warming. Discharging an average-sized cylinder of HFC227 has the same CO2 equivalent as driving a car 268,760 kilometres, according to liquid fire suppressant provider Sea-Fire Europe.
Due to its GHG emitting properties, HFC227 is now being eliminated as part of a phased-down mandate from the EU (2014 EU F-Gas Regulation (517/2014), and restricted or taxed by other countries such as Australia and Norway. It is expected that similar legislation will begin to affect Canada and US-flagged vessels soon.
An alternative to HFC227 is specialist fire suppression liquid, such as Novec 1230 Fire Protection Fluid, introduced by 3M in 2003. Novec 1230 puts out flames by physically cooling below the ignition temperature of what is burning and chemically inhibiting the fuel source. It offers a number of important advantages over other clean agents in marine fire suppression applications: it has low acute toxicity and high extinguishing efficiency, giving it a wide margin of safety compared to other chemical clean agents such as HFC227.
Novec 1230 is a fluid that vaporises rapidly during discharge and is non-corrosive, non-conductive and leaves no residue; it also has an atmospheric life of about a week, compared with HFC227’s 34 years, making it a long-term, sustainable solution with virtually zero global warming potential.
For the marine and offshore oil and gas industries, Novec 1230 fluid offers distinct advantages. Because it’s a fluid, recharging is simple. Unlike a gas like CO2, it can be flown to the vessel or platform, meaning less downtime waiting for supplies to arrive. It also takes up significantly less space.
Sea-Fire Europe reports that it has ceased distribution of HFC227 in a move touted as being both strategic and ethical. Alongside the GHG concerns, the phase-down of HFCs like HFC227 means that supplies are now running low. The shortage is pushing up prices, encouraging further the adoption of alternatives like Novec 1230 or its equivalents. The phase out of HFC227 will also create problems for providers in servicing systems.
Sea-Fire acknowledges that it may lose business in the short-term as boat and shipbuilders continue to choose HFC-based fire systems based on cost alone. But, ultimately, it says that eliminating the use of HFCs is the right thing to do for the marine industry.