Burn, Baby, Burn? Making Plastic Fire-Proof

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For anybody who's ever had to endure the smell of burning plastic for even a few minutes, this next bit of news will come as a welcome development. A group of scientists from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, have just created a new synthetic polymer that doesn't burn and doesn't require the flame-retardant chemicals found in most plastics.

This makes it an alluring alternative to the plastic materials commonly used in consumer electronics and textiles which tend to be so flammable that they've often been referred to as "solid gasoline." The polymer uses a chemical known as bishydroxydeoxybenzoin or BHDB as its building block, which releases water vapor upon breaking down in a fire instead of noxious gases.

It has all the desired qualities of a flame resistant plastic, including a clear appearance, lack of halogens, flexibility, durability and low manufacturing cost. Conventional heat-resistant plastics, on the other hand, tend to be more expensive to produce and are typically more brittle and darker in color. They are also composed of additives that contain chlorine, bromine or phosphorous, which, though effective at reducing the flammability of plastics, have been implicated in human and environmental health concerns."The great thing about BHDB is that it's really a two-birds-with-one-stone approach for a new polymer," says Bryan Coughlin, one of the study's lead scientists. "It is extremely fire-safe, and does not contain halogenated additives, which are known to be environmentally hazardous."

"We had to work outside the usual chemistry routes one takes to make something non-flammable," says Todd Emrick, another participant in the study. "It was a challenge, but once we realized BHDB was a useful building block, the synthetic polymer chemistry fell into place."

The first application of BHDB will be in aircraft parts. Because a large percentage (about 40%) of passengers who survive an airplane accident die in the ensuing fire, officials at the FAA and the UMass scientists hope these new more resistant plastics will help stem the number of fatalities.

Richard Lyon, the manager of the FAA fire research program, said, "To get there we have to invent plastics that don't yet exist—plastics that don't burn, or burn so slowly that there is ample time for passengers to escape from an aircraft fire."

In the future, they may also eventually find their way into combat gear for soldiers, household products and in circuit boards.

Via ::Scientists Create Fire-Safe, "Green" Plastic