A team of research scientists at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst recently unveiled a new fire-safe synthetic polymer that could help revolutionize the makeup of future airplanes and many other products.
The breakthrough research led by UMass-Amherst scientists Richard Farris, Bryan Coughlin and Todd Emrick produced a polymer that does not need a flame-retardant additive to make it fire-safe.
``It requires a partnership and scale far beyond what we can do in the labs. We think that if we strike the right relationship and get the material on scale, that within a few years it can be put on the market,'' Emrick said in a June 7 interview at the university.
The UMass team presented their findings to the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the U.S. Army on May 14.
Emrick said that the polymer has been produced in smaller batches for laboratory use, but the next step is to make tons of the material for further testing.
The promise shown by the new material is that it has a naturally high char yield of 70 percent and it does not contain any halogens. The char is the solid left behind when a material decomposes thermally or burns. So, a higher char yield means less fire and fewer volatile chemicals being released.
The material that UMass is working with uses bishydroxydeoxybenzoin, also known as BHDB, as a building block. It releases water vapor when it is burned. It is clear, flexible, durable and cheaper than high-temperature and heat-resistant plastics currently in use.
That's why the FAA has provided some of the funding for the research for the past 12 years, according to Richard Lyon, manager of the FAA's fire research program. He said UMass has been involved since the program's inception.
According to the FAA, 40 percent of passengers who survive the impact of an airplane accident die in the fire that follows. The agency requires that the most flame-resistant plastics are used in a plane construction. That's why it has been funding research to eliminate the threat of fire.
``The UMass polymer is a big step towards realization of a fire-proof cabin,'' Lyon said in an e-mail reply to questions. ``I emphasize `realization' because the UMass approach has the right performance characteristics as well as the economic and environmental potential to succeed in the marketplace.
``More important than the technical challenge of a new polymer are the economic and environmental hurdles to commercialization. Because aerospace is a niche specialty chemical market, chemical manufacturers like to identify a large-volume consumer application to justify their capital investment. Consumer applications are possible with the UMass approach because they have, for the first time, designed a functional polymer molecule that has ultra fire resistance without containing any halogens.''
Lyon said the UMass polymer would be used in seat components, side wall panels, ceiling panels, stowage bins, partitions, and glazing.
``The great thing about BHDB is that it's really a two-birds-with-one-stone approach for a new polymer. It is extremely fire-safe and does not contain halogenated additives, which are known to be environmentally hazardous,'' Coughlin said in a news release.
Emrick said that a consortium of private and public businesses has funded the research over the years. Research will continue. Patents have been applied for.
The next step is to commercialize the product. The applications could be used in aircraft parts, soldier combat gear, bus seats or even household products. However, that's for the commercial sector to decide, he said.