A new firefighting foam derived from soybeans could provide a new market for U.S. soybean meal and replace some of the substances that have contaminated underground water supplies with “forever chemicals” known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

Development of the new product, called SoyFoam TF-1122, was funded almost entirely by the United Soybean Board’s checkoff.

By the time its developer, Cross Plains Solutions in Dalton, Georgia, obtains all the necessary certification, the cost to create and bring SoyFoam to market should be close to $1.5 million, a relatively small price if it prevents more PFAS from seeping into groundwater, keeps firefighters safer and provides a new market for soybean producers.

Cross Plains has four employees and produces SoyFoam under contract in a 185,000-square-foot plant that employs about 20 workers. According to Alan Snipes, managing partner at Cross Plains, the plant has the capacity currently to produce 22,000 gallons of the all-natural firefighting foam each week. “If demand dictated, we could make 22,000 gallons every other day,” Snipes said, adding that the company is just now starting to sell its foam commercially.

“We have been commercializing it for the past five weeks. The Dalton Fire Department has been a proponent since November 2022 and has used it for training purposes, and they are now just putting it on their trucks,” he said. The Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Fire Department has also started to load the foam onto fire trucks, he said.

Fluorine, a forever chemical, has long been used in traditional firefighting foam The gas is also used in other products, including food packaging, Teflon, carpets, waterproof fabrics, mascara and artificial turf. Even small levels of PFAS exposure in humans increase the risk of health problems, including kidney and testicular cancer, liver problems and high cholesterol.

Some farmers have even struggled with PFAS, including New Mexico dairy producer Art Schaap. Foam used in training exercises at an Air Force base not far from his farm contained PFAS, which entered groundwater, contaminating the water that both his family and the dairy herd drank. Schaap had to euthanize his herd of 3,665 cows. 

Cross Plains has applied for a patent for SoyFoam, a fluorine-free, biobased, biodegradable concentrate that mixes with water to become more efficient. Made from soybeans and other agricultural products including coconut and corn, SoyFoam requires no special handling and is designed to work with traditional dispensing equipment.

The product is GreenScreen certified at gold, the second highest-level achievable and the only firefighting foam certified at that level. GreenScreen is an independent, non-profit certification that promotes the use of PFAS-free and preferred chemicals in products and manufacturing. More than 40 firefighting foams are now GreenScreen certified as silver, the third-highest level. Platinum is the top level.

The other certification that SoyFoam has received is the National Fire Protection Agency’s NFPA 18, allowing fire departments to use it as a wetting agent for both Class A and Class B fires. Class A fires involve ordinary materials, such as wood, paper, rubber, cloth and many plastics, while the more dangerous Class B involve flammable liquids, gases and greases.

“Our product is very effective for wildfires,” Snipes said. “It’s 100% nontoxic to aquatic animals and nontoxic to wildlife and it is rapidly biodegradable.” 

The International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 17556 for aerobic biodegradation in soil requires that a product be 60% biodegradable at 180 days. SoyFoam biodegraded in 18 days, and after 180 days, it was 91% degraded, considered 100% biodegradable, according to Snipes.

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In addition, SoyFoam is shelf stable. Until now, protein-based foams tended to be unstable, had a limited shelf life, and emitted an unpleasant odor when released. Cross Plains projects that SoyFoam, which has proven shelf stable for 2 years, will remain stable for 5 to 10 years. 

The global firefighting foam market was valued at $4.95 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow to nearly $7 billion by 2031, a compound average growth rate of 3.6%, according to Grand View Research. Drivers of  growth include more environmentally friendly foams and an increasing number of fires that result in fatalities and property loss. To claim a share of that market, SoyFoam must compete with long-time, established manufacturers of firefighting foams.

Cross Plains’ SoyFoam continues to undergo testing in a quest to obtain additional certification, including the UL 162. While fire departments can use SoyFoam to fight Class B fires involving alcohol or gasoline, without UL 162 certification, they may be reluctant to out of fear of financial responsibility for life or property loss. UL 162 testing is rigorous and “hard to pass," Snipes said.

The company has also been working on Military Specification for fluorine-free firefighting foams so it can sell to the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Armed Forces, a process that takes about a year. Additionally, Cross Plains is undergoing an 18- to 24-month testing process to achieve USDA Forest Service certification before SoyFoam can be used from helicopters. 

United Soybean Board Chairman Steve Reinhard thinks SoyFoam will be able to compete with other fluorine-free foams.

Reinhard-Open-Mic-Thumb.jpgSteve Reinhard

“The advantage we have is that our foam is GreenScreen certified at the gold level and that will help set our foam apart from the others. Communities can use a very sustainable product that is better for the health of firefighters and better than foams with fluorine. A lot of fire departments will be interested in using this product, both urban and rural. It doesn’t leave a heavy residue and it is pretty cost-competitive,” Reinhard said.

SoyFoam is one of the first checkoff-funded products made from soy meal, which makes up about 80% of the soybean, and the first product that could eventually replace products containing PFAS. To date, most soy-based products funded by the checkoff, whether biofuels, adhesives, coatings, lubricants, or plastics, have primarily used soybean oil in their production, according to U.S. Soy. As these products continue to proliferate, finding new demand streams for soy meal, the byproduct of the soybean crush, continues to be a top USB priority. 

“We are continuing to invest in different ways to use meal,” Reinhard said. “The oil market continues to see a steady growth curve. If we continue to grow the need for oil, we will have more soybean meal.”