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[December 10, 2005]
Seat of clay could be innovative way to reduce house fire death toll
(The Scotsman)SCOTS scientists have used nano-technology to develop a form of fire-retardant foam rubber based on clay that could help save lives around the world.
The Strathclyde University team invented a formula of polyurethane - used as cushioning in almost all soft furnishings - that is significantly less toxic and more environmentally friendly than existing types of fire retardant foam rubber.
Scotland has one of the worst fire death records in the world, with about 110 people a year dying in house fires. Many of these fires are made worse by soft furnishings, including beds and sofas, which contain flexible polyurethane foam that burns readily and allows the fire to spread.
Current fire retardant foams use chemicals such as bromiates and organophosphates that effectively "smother" flames. However, in high quantities these chemicals are known to be potentially toxic and are environmentally poisonous.
The team, headed by Dr John Liggat and Professor Richard Pethrick, at the Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry, have developed a formula that minimises the presence of these chemicals by using clay particles to prevent the disintegration of the foam - particles of polyurethane are highly flammable - limiting any fire.
"It's a bit like building a brick wall that can keep the particles of polyurethane in shape and together," explained Dr Liggat. "Using nanotechnology, we have managed to distribute the clay into its structure. We were told this was impossible because it would create a solid lump, and we were refused funding. There was a certain logic to that reasoning, because the main structure of clay looks like large reams of paper and would have the effect they claimed it would. Our trick is to extract the smaller molecules that look like leaflets and use those for our foam."
Because the foam uses clay, it means that it is biodegradable and easier on the environment.
Dr Leggat said that the next stage of the development will be to eradicate all presence of the toxic chemicals.
The team is now in the final stages of creating a "proof of concept", which will see the invention hit the market next year. The foam rubber market is worth GBP 500 million in the UK and GBP 3 billion in continental Europe.
The invention comes at a time when stringent EU regulations are demanding action to reduce use of the current chemicals to a minimum.
In Germany there are proposals to ban the production of furniture using them.
Dr Liggat added: "When we were visited by representatives from the industry, they were initially sceptical.
"But when they saw that the foam we were producing looks and feels indistinguishable from existing types, they were very enthusiastic."
Despite initial difficulties getting funding, the team received GBP 163,900 for to develop the idea.
Margaret McGarry, senior director of technology collaboration at Scottish Enterprise, said: "Increased collaboration with our universities is key to strengthening the economy and Scottish Enterprise initiatives like this help plug the gap between academic research and increased commercialisation, resulting in new, growing businesses.
"The technology to be developed during the project showed real competitive advantage and innovation and a demonstrable market opportunity."
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