Army Funds Fire Retardant Materials Research at UMass Lowell

02/02/2006
By For more information, contact media@uml.edu or 978-934-3224

LOWELL ߝ Innovative work on flame resistant materials has earned the respect and attention of the U.S. Armyߞ;as well as $390,000 in new funding.

Prof. Arthur Watterson, director of the Institute for Nano Science and Engineering Technology at UML and Dr. Lynne Samuelson of the Natick Soldier Systems Center announced the award. The three-year grant from the Army’s Environmental Quality Program will fund a National Research Council post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Ravi Mosurkal, to work on developing the new technology. This funding will also bring in Dr. Ferdinando Bruno for his enzyme polymerization expertise.

The discovery involves the use of certain enzymesߞ;nature’s catalystsߞ;to synthesize a new class of polymer materials under mild and environmentally friendly reaction conditions. Science magazine took notice with a report in the Oct. 15, 2004 issue; a U.S. patent was issued in November 2005.

“We knew we had potential with this materialߞ;that it’s environmentally safe and benign, both to produce and to useߞ;and that it solves many of the problems associated with flame-retardant compounds in wide use,” says Watterson.

The Army has a significant need for improved, cost effective and environmentally safe flame retardant clothing. Burn injuries are increasing due to urban warfare and from a multitude of flame hazards: incidental exposure, accidents with battlefield combustibles, and enemy attack with thermal or chemical weapons, explosions, or ballistics.

Appropriately designed flame protective clothing can provide critical seconds to escape. Current military clothing made from Nomex and Kevlar provides adequate flame protection but the cost to issue these fabrics to every soldier is prohibitive. Lower cost solutions include flame retardant treatments that add 20 percent in weight and use toxic halogenated polymers, many of which are being banned today, worldwide, for environmental and human safety reasons.

Melt drip is another undesirable property of these synthetic fabrics because the melt is known to cause additional serious burns. The new material being developed at UMass Lowell solves these problems.

“We are using a new conceptߞ;nanomaterials made with metal oxides,” says Watterson. “No halogens, no bromines, no toxic small molecules. The materials are flame resistant to a very high temperature and, when they do burn, they don’t release toxic vapors or particles into the environment, and they don’t melt and drip.”

“We are developing the technology and expect to produce fire safe materialsߞ;using green chemistryߞ;that eliminate both the generation of toxic materials upon combustion and the leaching of toxic chemicals onto human skin,” says Samuelson. “Within three years, we hope to have a material that can be processed as a simple coating or spun into fibers for textile applications that can meet or beat the performance properties we’re aiming for.”

The University of Massachusetts Lowell, a comprehensive university with special expertise in applied science and technology, is committed to educating students for lifelong success and conducting research and outreach activities that sustain the economic, environmental and social health of the region. UML offers its 12,000 undergraduate and graduate students more than 80 degree programs in the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, and Management; the School of Health and Environment;  and the Graduate School of Education. Visit our website at www.uml.edu.