Fire-resistant cladding

An organic, non-combustible and low-density cladding core has been developed by a team at the University of Melbourne, Australia, researcher. Making such a product was originally thought to be impossible because of the nature of carbon-based materials.

Organic polymeric materials are typically highly insulating and because they are also lightweight, flexible and easy to manufacturing into various forms, they are commonly used as insulation for wiring, for example, displacing woven natural fibers and ceramics used in the early days of electricity use, and in the construction industry for heat insulation. However, organic, carbon-based, materials are wont to oxidation and readily combust. Non-combustible materials such as ceramics and concrete are much high density, more expensive to produce and install, and in many instances lack the necessary flexibility to be viable.

Now, researchers at the University of Melbourne Innovative Fire Engineering Group research leader Kate Nguyen have reported an alternative at the Second Edition Fire Safety and Cladding Summit in Sydney, which took place over two days in November. They have added tiny ceramic particles to the plastic electrical insulation, which they say activate and chemically interact with each other, forming and spreading a heat resistant network through the material that precludes combustion below an acceptable temperature threshold.

The team has worked with construction materials company Envirosip, who commissioned the research, on this development. Different ceramic particles were tested at the university's furnace at Creswick, North West of Melbourne. Ultimately, a formulation that could withstand a temperature of 750 degrees Celsius was found.

"When it passed our first test I was excited, but even after the fifth time I still couldn't quite believe it," Nguyen says. The development comes in the wake of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London that cost the lives of 72 people. Given the need to insulate a building and the problems associated with using asbestos, the construction industry worldwide has been working with materials scientists to find a low-density, non-combustible cladding material.

The team explains that their polymer with added ceramic is lightweight and exists as a grey, compressed powder with tiny dark specks. When heated the ceramic particles interact with the polymer darkening it, but more importantly rendering it non-combustible. The material has been tested by an independent testing facility approved by the National Association of Testing Authorities and has achieved Australian and International Standards on combustibility of construction materials. The next step will be for Envirosip and the university to commercialize the product. "When you are doing research, not all ideas will be successful. To go from success to commercialization is another big step, but we believe we have developed something special that will be significant for the industry," Nguyen adds.

David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase. His popular science book Deceived Wisdom is now available.