Fighting Fire with Foam

Containment is the name of the game in fire protection. The longer a structure can withstand flames and prevent fire from spreading, the greater the chances that lives and property will be saved. Researchers in Georgia have developed a new insulating and fire protection technology: a closed-cell foam composite that expands when exposed to fire. This insulation can reportedly withstand fire up to 100 times longer than existing products.From Georgia Tech:Fighting Fire with Foam
New insulating technology advances fire protection

Containment is the name of the game in fire protection. The longer a structure can withstand flames and prevent fire from spreading, the greater the chances that lives and property will be saved.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a new insulating and fire protection technology: a closed-cell foam composite that expands when exposed to fire.

This insulation can withstand fire up to 100 times longer than existing products, reports Juan Vitali, a principal research engineer in Georgia Tech Research Institute’s Electro-Optics, Environment and Materials Laboratory, who leads the research team along with Professor Haskell Beckham from the School of Polymer, Textile and Fiber Engineering.

Insulating foam can be structured with either open or closed cells. In closed-cell foams, a plastic membrane surrounds each cell, preventing gas or air from passing through it.

Georgia Tech’s technology combines closed-cell foam with special pyrolyzing polymers that break down and then swell when exposed to fire. The unique composition of the foam composite results in an insulating material that is lightweight, flame-resistant and extremely durable.

In collaboration with RBX Corp., the Georgia Tech team will adapt this technology to produce fire-resistant aircraft shelters for overseas military deployments, a project funded by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. (Fire is a major cause of peacetime casualties because of the large amount of ignitable fuel stored in aircraft shelters.)

For these military shelters, the researchers plan to create a two-level protection: When the foam is first exposed to fire, one group of polymers will break down and release fire-suppressing gases. If these gases don’t extinguish the fire, then another group of special materials will activate at higher temperatures and expand, which will increase the volume of air between the fire and the tent. The expansion of these materials also creates a charring to provide additional insulation.

Beyond military shelters, this technology has many other applications:
? Interior coating for aircraft engine bays. In case of an engine fire, the foam will expand and extinguish the blaze.
? Thin lining for firefighters’ suits. Vitali is working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and North Carolina State University to develop a new protective suit for first responders. “Many firefighters involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks complained of exhaustion because their garments were so heavy,” says Vitali, who hopes to cut the weight of suits in half while increasing the level of fire protection.
? Insulation for commercial buildings. Currently, fireproofing paints with intumescent polymers are sprayed on building as insulation. But these paints offer limited protection because they break down quickly when exposed to fire.

If his fireproofing-foam concept had been used in the World Trade Center buildings, Vitali believes more lives could have been saved. “The beams of the buildings would still have ultimately buckled and collapsed, but the foam would have delayed the temperature rise and bought more time, perhaps hours,” Vitali says. “And during fire, every second counts. Anything you can do to slow down the expansion of the fireball translates into lives saved.”

The researchers are now working on a manufacturing process, developing a set of intumescent polymers and additives that will match the foam’s curing process.

“It’s an optimization process,” Vitali explains. “We’re looking for structures that will give us the right activation temperature.”

For more information, contact Juan Vitali at 404-894-4875 or [email protected]

1 COMMENT

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.