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Safer fire-fighting

by Katrina Kalleske

Dr Ravi Naidu & Dr Venkata KambalaUniSA scientists are at the forefront of a groundbreaking treatment to clean up highly toxic foam chemicals that are used worldwide to fight fires. And their work has been recognised with a national award.

Amid growing concern about cancer and environmental risks from long-lasting chemicals in the foams, UniSA researchers from the Centre for Environmental Risk Assessment and Remediation (CERAR), and the CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE), have modified a naturally occurring material to treat contaminated wastewater that is left after a fire.

Professor Ravi Naidu, CRC CARE Managing Director at UniSA, says the advance was based on the use of modified natural materials which break down the fire-fighting foam chemicals into harmless substances.

“Worldwide, people have been using these foams for fighting fires and fire drills for decades,” he says. “Anywhere modern fire services operate, there is a risk of long-lasting contamination.”

The work has won one of Australia’s top science prizes, a 2010 CRC STAR Award from the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research.

UniSA (CERAR) Research Fellow Dr Venkata Kambala developed the new product called MatCARE™. Dr Kambala worked with South Australian company Soil and Groundwater Consulting Pty Ltd for the field trials, with support from the Australian Department of Defence.

Dr Kambala says there are two main chemicals in fire-fighting foam that can be a health risk to animals and humans.

“These chemicals are very stable and can move rapidly into local soils and waters where, because they are so long-lasting, they can reach quite unacceptable levels,” he says.

“Although they are being phased out of use in fire-fighting foams, they have been used for many years in fire-fighting exercises at military and civilian airports and other sites where they have been detected in groundwater, soil and streams.”

Dr Kambala has been working on the project for three years, and after successful large scale field trials on soil and wastewater in April 2010, commercialisation and licensing plans are now underway.

Winning the CRC STAR award was certainly unexpected for Dr Kambala.

“It was a big surprise and personally very satisfying to know that it will benefit all the organisations involved in the project,” he says.

“It brings a lot of enthusiasm and motivation for me to strive hard for the social and economic wellbeing of Australia. It is to the credit of UniSA, CRC CARE and Australia that we have developed a low cost and effective remediation method for a global environmental problem.

“This has come as a big gift for me, so soon after I have taken up Australian Citizenship (in April).”

Dr Kambala, who migrated to Australia from India, has had another personal win, also being selected for a 2010 Australia Japan Emerging Researchers Exchange Program. He is one of eight Australian mid-career scientists who will travel to Tokyo in November this year for the program.

“I will get to visit and interact with various research groups in the areas of energy, environment, new materials such as nanomaterials, and biotechnology with medical applications,” he said.

The program is run by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE).