The Palm Scribe

IPB Researchers may have found a Palm Oil Solution to Peatland Fires

Indonesia has been plagued by annual forest and ground fires, most of them taking place in hard to extinguish peatland, but a team of researchers from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) may have found a solution that would allow battling peat fires in a quicker and more effective manner while at the same time driving up domestic demand for palm oil as the government is seeking to do.

A team of IPB researchers headed by Mira Rivai has formulated a foaming agent that can cut water consumption and time in extinguishing fires in peatland. Peatland, when very dry, easily catches fires and once burning, it is known to be extremely difficult to extinguish as underground seams of peat could remain smoldering for a long time, sometimes rekindling renewed fires on the surface.

Mira said that the foaming agent is produced using fatty acid from palm oil, put through a saponification process to produce a fatty acid salt called “soap”. This soap is then mixed with other materials in a homogenization tank to form the basic solution for the foaming agent.

“At the moment, we have tested the three percent solution, meaning three percent foaming agent and 97 percent water, and tests have so far produced good results,” Mira told the Palm Scribe in an interview at her office in Bogor.

She said that a number of laboratory-scale tests, including on plots of 12 by 12 centimeter and later in one by one meter, and also put in practice in a peatland fire in Riau province earlier this year, have proven the foaming agent to be able to result in drastic savings in the use of water needed to extinguish the fire as well as cut the time needed.

After a fire, the characteristics of peatland changes from previously hydrophilic to hydrophobic, meaning it turns from water-absorbing to water-repelling. The foaming agent from palm oil helps it regain its previous characteristic.

The hydrophobic nature of burned peatland is the reason why to extinguish fires there, the soil needed to be practically drenched in water and even then, sometimes fires can resurface because the fire had remained underneath the surface. Within 15 minutes, the temperature of the soil had been brought down to around 65 degrees Celcius from the previous some 300 degrees, Mira said. The next morning, the temperature of the soil where the agent was used was below 50 degrees meaning that there were no longer fires smoldering underneath. Meanwhile, the nearby plot which had been extensively doused with water was still burning.

Another advantage of the foaming agent is that it can be dissolved in any kind of water, including peatland swamp water that is murky. The water does not need to be filtered, Mira said.

In testing on one by one-meter plots in the laboratory, Mira said that “When no foaming agent is used, the water needed can reach w to four times more than when using a foaming agent.” Further laboratory testing, on larger plots of ten by ten meters, was being planned for after the rainy season, sometimes around January and February, she said. The team was also looking at whether it could further reduce the solution to below three percent while still maintaining the effectivity of the foaming agent.

She said that the results of the research also showed that the use of the foaming agent “Did not show that it can damage the environment. The chemicals we use in the formula are all chemicals that are environment-friendly.”

Mira said that the production of the foaming agent from palm oil only needed two reactors, one for saponification and another for homogenization which was not costly investments, therefore, producing facilities could be set up anywhere. A number of companies have expressed interest in producing the agents but no deal had yet been clenched, she said.

The research, she said, was sparked by a call for research that would lead to more use for palm oil, launched by the Palm Oil Plantation Fund Management Agency (BPDPKS). “Our team submitted a proposal for a foaming agent from palm oil and it was accepted,” she said, adding that IPB is currently working to patent the foaming agent.

Since this year the team has also been working on a light fire extinguisher, using the same principle, fatty acids from palm oil but mixed with other ingredients. “But this still needs further testing,” she added.

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