• Tech Tech

Researchers develop 'novel method' to create paper-thin fire-retardant material: 'It forms a thermal protective char layer'

Fireproofing properties effectively has become a more prominent need in the construction industry.

Fireproofing properties effectively has become a more prominent need in the construction industry.

Photo Credit: RMIT University

A new method to sustainably make buildings fireproof has been developed by researchers in Australia, and it uses an unlikely material.

The team from RMIT University in Melbourne created panels made of fungus that can be used to clad structures and keep them protected during a blaze.

Described by the researchers as a "novel method" to help keep properties safe from fire damage — which is becoming an increasing concern as wildfire events become more common and more intense — fungus was chemically manipulated to enhance its fireproof properties. 

It's environmentally friendly, too. In addition to being formed using organic waste, the paper-thin fungal layer does not release harmful chemicals when burned. Many fireproof materials containing plastic release toxins and plenty of smoke if they combust, causing health and environmental concerns. 

"The great thing about mycelium is that it forms a thermal protective char layer when exposed to fire or radiant heat," Everson Kandare, a specialist in the flammability and thermal properties of biomaterials, told the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. "The longer and the higher temperature at which mycelium char survives, the better its use as a fireproof material."

While the results are promising, one of the key issues is the fungal panels take a lot longer to create than plastic ones. But talks are being held with those in the mushroom industry to use fungal-incorporated waste products rather than cultivating new mushroom farms, as associate professor Tien Huynh told the IMechE.

Huynh noted the fungal material could have other uses, too, such as producing a "leather-like" material for the fashion industry.

"The researchers are now looking to create fungal mats reinforced by engineering fibers to delay ignition, reduce flame intensity, and improve their fire safety ranking," the IMechE added. 

Fireproofing properties effectively has become a more prominent need in the construction industry following the Grenfell fire in London in 2017, when a high-rise block of apartments went up in flames. 

The supposedly fireproof cladding on the building had a highly combustible core, an inquiry said, and that helped the fire spread quickly. Seventy-two people died, and many others lost their homes.

While a faulty fridge-freezer was the initial cause of the fire, global heating is responsible for burning events elsewhere. 

A warming planet is leading to hot and dry conditions in rural and woodland areas that are perfect for starting fires. Lightning storms, errant sparks from machinery, and discarded cigarettes can all begin a blaze.

According to the United Nations, estimates suggest that global wildfire events could increase by 14% by 2030, 30% by 2050, and 50% by 2100. 

While reducing planet-warming pollution is key to preventing temperatures from rising higher — buying an electric car, eating more plant-based meals, and turning to sustainable energy sources can help — methods to stop the damage of wildfires now are also important for the livelihoods and homes of people in areas prone to these extreme weather conditions.

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