New Lava-Like Coating Can Stop Fires In Their Tracks

sciencehabit shares a report from It takes a lot of science to stop a fire. To prevent homes and workplaces from going up in smoke, manufacturers have added flame retardants to plastic, wood, and steel building materials for decades. But such additives can be toxic, expensive, and sometimes ineffective. Now, researchers in Australia and China have come up with a new flame retardant that, when exposed to extreme heat, forms a ceramic layer akin to hardened lava, squelching the flames before they spread. “This is very good work,” says David Schiraldi, a chemist at Case Western Reserve University, who has developed other flame retardants. He notes that the ceramic’s starting materials aren’t particularly expensive or toxic, making it more likely to see widespread use. “[This] could impact public safety in the long run.”

[The researchers] used three components. First, they created a mixture of several metal oxide powders — including oxides of aluminum, silicon, calcium, and sodium. That mix begins to melt at about 350C (below the temperature of most flames), forming a glasslike sheet. Next, the researchers added tiny flakes of boron nitride, which flow easily and help fill any spaces between the metal oxides as the glass forms. Finally, they added a fire-retardant polymer, which they described in ACS Nano in 2021. The polymer acts as a binder to glue the rest of the mixture to whatever it’s coating. That mix dissolved in water into a milky-white solution, which they then sprayed on a variety of surfaces, including rigid foam insulation, wood, and steel. After it dried, they blasted each coated material for 30 seconds with an 1100C butane torch. In each case, the coating melted into a viscous liquid, covering the material in a continuous glassy sheet.

When heated by the torch, coating spewed out nonflammable gases, such as carbon dioxide. As it did, it became more dense and formed a uniform, noncombustible char layer, which blocked flames from spreading to the materials underneath. The novel flame retardant protected rigid polymer foam — the kind used to insulate homes — better than more than a dozen commonly used retardants, the researchers report today in Matter. The new coating also excelled at protecting wood and steel. If sprayed on building materials during construction, the new coating could prevent disasters like the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London, where 72 people died, the researchers say.

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