Researchers in the US are looking for innovative fire protection solutions to solve the high cost of today’s fire problem in terms of lives and property. In 2017 alone, over 1.3 million structure fires caused an estimated 3,400 deaths, over 14,000 injuries and in excess of $20 billion in damages, according to the US Fire Administration.
Nanotechnology is the science, engineering and technology conducted at the nanoscale (about one to 100 nanometers)
Nanotechnology could be one such solution; it can help to make building and product materials stronger, lighter and at the same time, more fire resistant.
It can be used in starch-based coatings that are applied to textiles and furniture to increase fire resistance and brick, mortar and other clay products to lower thermal conductivity, and increase gas barrier properties.
Nanotechnology can also be used to make nanofibre mats. Used in place of building insulation and some foams, the mats attract thermal energy from flames and absorb it while self-extinguishing the fire. This limits fire spread and damage. Compartmentalisation of fires is an important benefit of nanotechnology, allowing occupants more time to escape.
Further applications include hydrogels for fire resistant blankets and clothing to absorb heat and prevent thermal burns and polyetherimide nanocomposite foams to enhance thermal protection for appliances. These foams can be combined with nanoclays, which won't release toxic gases when exposed to flame.
Fire safety would benefit from nanotechnology in smoke alarms that can detect particles at the very start of a fire and fire resistant nanocoatings that increase material strength and durability to better withstand high thermal energy. These nanocoatings can also provide fire resistance in fuel lines and engine components, reducing the risk of vehicle fires. Another advantage to the technology is in fire suppression systems, where various chemical mixtures can be broken down to particle size to enable fires to be extinguished faster.
However, there are three areas that are delaying widespread use of nanotechnology. The first being health concerns. Cancer and silicosis are known to be a concern with nanotechnologies. It is known that harmful exposure is possible through inhalation, skin contact or ingestion. But there is still a great deal that is unknown about the full scope of risks to the fire service and the public and precisely under what conditions.
Secondly, the reliability of nanocoatings. Nanoparticles tend to form bubbles when they start to char. When those bubbles burst, the nanoparticles are propelled outward and protection is reduced. Finding a cost-effective way to mitigate this problem is essential.
Finally, cost. Production on a wide scale is expensive and most corporations choose to invest in the cheaper option of suppression systems and detectors.
See here for further reading about the implications of nanotechnology for the fire service.