Making flame retardants less toxic

Researchers in CMU’s science of advanced materials program use organic plant material

| Author: Gary H. Piatek

Fires will always occur, but research being conducted at Central Michigan University aims to make them less deadly.

Most deaths during a fire are not directly caused by the flames but by smoke inhalation, data from the National Fire Protection Association shows. Mixed within the smoky haze are toxic gases released by materials that are pervasive in our homes, from clothing, to furniture and electronics.

While the flame retardants in many of those materials can help prevent fire-related deaths by delaying combustion, once ignited, the burning chemicals can become lethal. In addition, discarded flame-retardant materials pollute the environment.

A research team in Central's science of advanced materials doctoral program in the College of Science and Engineering has been working to develop less toxic and biodegradable flame retardants. Newly retired Professor Bob Howell presented the team's findings at the American Chemical Society's National Meeting and Exposition in August.

“We are looking for safer materials, a better environment and a sustainable future.” — Bob Howell, professor emeritus, science of advanced materials

"There is a real need to find new materials for flame retardants that are nontoxic, don't persist in the environment when they are thrown away, and don't rely on petroleum," said Howell, who led the research.

To find a substitute, he turned to plants. The team used gallic acid found in fruits, nuts and leaves and an acid found in buckwheat to create organic flame retardants that not only quickly quench a flame but also are environmentally friendly.

Testing showed that the plant-derived flame retardants performed as well as or better than the common petroleum-based retardants and are less costly, he said.

"We are looking for safer materials, a better environment and a sustainable future," he said.

"Thankfully, more companies also are looking for ways to do things without solvents, and the push now is to stop dumping things into the environment that are going to be harmful."

Provost Mary C. Schutten said the team's work is an example of CMU's high-level research.

"CMU's approach to research focuses on solving real problems facing our communities, near and far," she said. "Our researchers are continually working to promote health, protect the environment, contribute new knowledge and improve lives."

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