There are many workers around the world, who would if it were possible, shake the hands of the scientists who engineered and guided the creation of heat resistant materials throughout human history. These scientists spent their days researching the nature of fire, how it destroys but also renews, and their discoveries have helped make the world a safer place. Firefighters, electricity utility line workers, electricians, chemical plant workers, workers in the oil and gas industry and the pulp and paper industry all have these scientists to thank for making their jobs, which are some of the most dangerous in the world, a bit safer.
The history of flame-retardant materials begins as far back as ancient Chinese and Egyptian civilizations. The Chinese would rub alum and vinegar to wood and clay to slow down the burn rate of fire. Even the Roman empire made use of these methods to protect their boats. This method of alum, vinegar and clay continued throughout time, it was even used in the seventeenth century to protect theatres in case of fire, where the loss of life was significant. Then in the nineteenth century, alum and ammonium were used to make fabrics resistant. With this, a chemical understanding of fire-resistant materials was born.
The chemist and physicist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac’s experiments with salt helped spur on further discoveries in the field. Gay-Lussac’s tried two types of salt in his experiments and noted how each salt affected the burning of the textile in different ways. Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac is also cited as the discoverer of Boron, a fire retardant.
It was in the twentieth century when other scientists began to use Stannic Oxide (an off-white powdery substance) to make fabric flame resistant. When the majority of fibers used in manufacturing clothing became synthetic rather than natural, the flame-resistant research had to follow. It was actually the United States of America and their always expanding military-industrial complex which took on the task and their research of fire-resistant materials for The Army Quartermaster Corps’ had much success.
Almost every single roll of fabric today has had some type of fire-resistant treatment done to it, before even reaching the clothing stores on the high streets around the world. This is all thanks to the discovery of Tetra (hydroxymethyl) phosphonium chloride (THPC). THPC could be applied to all sorts of materials from paper to paint in order to nullify burning. Nomex, polybenzimidazole (PBI), Kevlar, and even wool is used in many of today’s fire-resistant clothing lines and many companies like ADL Insulfex provide heat resistant material solutions to both home and industry.
Here it would be good to clarify the confusion sometimes found when discussing this topic. Fire-retardant materials are not to be replaced with fire-resistant materials. A fire-resistant material is built to halt burning and withstand heat; however, fire-retardant materials are built to burn slowly. An example of a fire-resistant material that is well known and used around the world would be fire blankets, a highly flame-resistant blanket that can be used to extinguish a fire or to wrap around a person in case of a fire. Fire blankets are made from 2 layers of woven glass fiber fabric and an inner layer of fire-retardant film. They work by cutting off the oxygen supply to the fire.