Neal St. Anthony
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As an abandoned barn burned Saturday morning in Rockford, Minn., firefighters extinguished the blaze in seconds with an "earth-friendly" fire retardant developed by a local company that aims to take market share from the chemical-based retardants commonly used to douse building and forest fires.

The demonstration was repeated several times on a barn and an adjacent house as several dozen representatives of local fire departments and potential business partners watched what the CEO claims is a "next-generation firefighting water additive that can knock down and contain fire better than any other product on the market."

EarthClean Corp. is the fledgling company behind a six-year-old idea born of a Woodbury volunteer firefighter, a retired 3M engineer and a couple of chemical experts from H.B. Fuller. The company will announce that it has raised more than $1 million in equity from several individual investors and that it has started producing thousands of pounds of dry-mix product through a contract manufacturer in Woodbury.

"We have enough funding in place to get product to market and our plan is to start selling product within six to eight weeks," said CEO Doug Ruth, who is trying to raise up to $3 million. "The feedback from the fire chiefs is: 'How do we invest in this company?'''

The product is called TetraKO, or Tetra Knock Out. The name is a twist on "Fire Tetrahedraon," the fire ingredients of heat, oxygen, fuel and chemical reaction.

EarthClean technology will be sold as a lower-cost, greener alternative that alters the composition of water in a firetruck or the tanks on a firefighting aircraft or a hand-held container into a biodegradable gel that, when sprayed, sticks to structures and plants with a fire-suppressing coating that will not slide off and that offers a faster, more-effective "knockdown" than plain water, foams or phosphorous-based retardants.

Ruth said TetraKO is "a patented technology that has been independently certified to be non-toxic and biodegradable. More importantly, this next-generation firefighting water additive can knock down and contain fire better than any other product on the market.''

The 'secret sauce'

In developing the additive, Ruth said the goal was to "eliminate what gravity does to water; it falls to the ground. Essentially, we are taking the same process used to gel hand sanitizer to gel water. But we're not using alcohol. We're using nontoxic, biodegradable ingredients. And we prove that to our clients."

Ruth said the product is 99.5 percent water, 0.25 percent corn starch "and the rest is the secret sauce.''

This little company covets a piece of a huge market for chemical foams alone that's estimated to be worth more than $400 million, at $20 per gallon. The U.S. Forest Service alone bought 28 million gallons of fire retardant in 2008. Traditional foams face increasing opposition from environmentalists and others concerned about damage to land and water from airborne dumping of solutions that contain phosphorus and ammonia oxide.

The spark for what became TetraKO came from the concerns of veteran Woodbury firefighter Terry Lund, who is also a Mesaba Airlines pilot. He took his vision of a cleaner, safer retardant to a fishing buddy, who happened to be a chemist.

Bob Hume, a retired H.B. Fuller chemical engineer; and Jim Hagquist, a former H.B. Fuller chemist, developed the TetraKO solutions over the last four years. Rod Lund, Terry's dad and a retired 3M engineer, worked on the equipment used to dispense the solution. They recruited Ruth, a veteran executive who has been involved in financing, running and staffing a number of technology companies over the last 25 years.

"A lot of the foams are polluting," said George Esbensen, fire chief and director of emergency preparedness in Eden Prairie, one of more than a dozen departments at the demonstration on Saturday. "We're evaluating this product in terms of its environmental impact. And it's important to get that quick knockdown of a fire. They're telling us, that on a per gallon basis, the cost will be very competitive."

Nyle Zikmund, chief of the Spring Lake Park Fire Department, which also serves Blaine and Mounds View and one of the state's senior firefighting officials, is an unpaid "fire operations advisory board" member to EarthClean. The advisory operations board also includes Terry Lund and JoAnn Tyler, Minnesota sales representative for Jefferson Fire & Safety, and a volunteer firefighter in Chanhassen.

If these folks are right, Minnesota has just launched a little company with a big potential to make money and create jobs from a better, safer, greener mousetrap.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com