In the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017, when a block of flats in London went up in flames, killing 72 people and injuring 70 more, building owners worldwide are looking to rip out the flammable cladding like the sort that allowed the fire to spread and replace it with something safer. They've had to confront the reality of a choice between expensive replacements, and options so heavy they are hard to install. Even before the disaster, however, Dr Kate Nguyen of the University of Melbourne was seeking something better, and now claims she has the solution.
The cladding of the tower block, a layer of material that provides thermal insulation and weather resistance, proved so flammable, the fire burned for 60 hours, the worst residential fire in the UK since World War II.
Nguyen told IFLScience when she was asked to produce a non-combustible organic material her first response was that it was impossible. Many people had tried. However, she added, “Because we're researchers we said 'lets give it a go.'” Nguyen was inspired by learning that electrical cables include ceramic particles, and when exposed to heat these transform to prevent the material burning.
The cable insulation isn't suitable for what Nguyen needed, but it provided somewhere to start. She began experimenting with different ingredients for the ceramics, testing them to find a combination that, when seeded through cheap and lightweight plastics, would meet the international standards test of resisting 750ºC (1,382ºF) heat.
Eventually, Nguyen found one promising enough to try. “When it passed our first test I was excited, but even after the fifth time I still couldn’t quite believe it,” Nguyen said in a statement. The material has already been independently tested and found to meet international standards.
When manufactured, the ceramics look like dark specks in the light grey plastic, but when exposed to high temperatures they turn the whole material dark, while preventing fire taking hold.
Nguyen told IFLScience the ceramics' composition remains a secret while patents are being applied for. Meanwhile, she is working on trying to develop a version that can be sprayed onto surfaces, providing far greater flexibility, particularly in buildings that have already been constructed, but now need to meet higher safety standards.
Nguyen is also looking at expanding the work to other applications, such as a heat resistant food packaging.
However, with so many tall buildings needing to replace their cladding, there is plenty of potential demand for Nguyen's product. The issue is so topical a Fire Safety and Cladding Summit was held this week, at which Nguyen presented her work.
University research like this often has trouble finding commercial partners, irrespective of its potential, but Nguyen was put onto the idea by insulation panel producer Envirosip. She said the main challenge at this point is finding a manufacturer who will produce the product in large enough quantities for economies of scale to make it competitive.