By Edwin L. Aguirre
Students who have developed a way to use a byproduct of processing cashew nut shells to make fireproof fabric have been recognized for their work by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Polymer science graduate student Sethumadhavan Ravichandran and chemical engineering graduate student Ryan Bouldin teamed up with physics Prof. Jayant Kumar and plastics engineering Asst. Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan in designing a safer, “greener” method for producing flame-resistant materials.
For their effort, the team was recently chosen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to receive a People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) award during the National Sustainable Design Expo held at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
UMass Lowell was one of only five schools to win the coveted P3 award. Each received up to $75,000 in grant to further develop the design, implement it in the field or move it into the marketplace. A total of 55 universities nationwide competed in the event.
“This is the first time a student team from UMass Lowell’s Francis College of Engineering has brought home this amount of money,” says Nagarajan. “Sethu is the lead researcher in the project.”
Protecting People’s Lives
“Most of us go to work driving a car or riding a bus full of plastic components and upholstery that have been treated with compounds to minimize the risk of fire,” says Kumar. “First responders and soldiers battle fire on a daily basis and put on a fireproof suit containing additives called ‘flame retardants.’ However, several commonly used flame retardants contain polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, which are very toxic and can persist in the environment.”
He says firefighters and soldiers in combat routinely face the risk of cancer and other disorders caused by flame-retardant-treated gear designed to keep them safe.
“Some flame retardants currently used release toxic gases into the atmosphere when they burn, threatening both air and water ecosystems,” says Nagarajan. “Their use has already been banned by the European Union and in the states of California and Maine. Still, more than 900,000 tons of brominated additives are used commercially worldwide each year.”
“Our idea could help to eliminate this occupational health risk for our brave service men and women as well as the civilian population,” says Ravichandran. “In addition, it could have a profound impact on people’s lives by providing the extra time necessary for safe exit during a fire.”
“The Secret to Our Success”
“The interdisciplinary nature of our team — with members from the departments of Chemistry, Physics, Plastics Engineering and Chemical Engineering — was greatly appreciated by the EPA,” says Nagarajan.
Kumar, who directs UMass Lowell’s Center for Advanced Materials, says, “This P3 award will allow us to develop replacements to fire retardants that are non-toxic and have minimal environmental impact while being inexpensive.”
The team had an opportunity to meet with U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas at her office in the U.S. Capitol.
Seed funding for the team’s work was provided by the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI), the UMass Commercial Ventures & Intellectual Property Technology Development Fund. The investigators also acknowledge the support of U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Center for this project.