MadSci Network: Chemistry

Re: How does fire retardant work on fabric

Date: Fri Oct 22 21:37:36 1999
Posted By: Donald E Duggan, Undergraduate, Astronomy/physics - fire science, just plain ol' home
Area of science: Chemistry
ID: 940519786.Ch


As you may well know through your research already, no prduct can be made totally fireproof, thus the term fire retardent. Fire retardent works, not by fireproofing anything, but by slowing the Chemical process by which fire builds and extends itself. In effect it does what it says in that it RETARDS the fire. hopefully enough in order that the first arrriving fire companies will be able to extinguish it with as little water and smoke damage as absolutely necessary.

Good fire retardents contain compounds which include nitrogen, phosphorus, chlorine, antimony, chlorine or boron. The material used is dictated by the material being treated. The chemicals or compounds work in differing ways: some reduce the amount of burnable fuel vapors produced by the heated or burning substance. Others release gases which will not burn, one being plain old water vapor, to dilute the fuel vapors. Still others slow the rate of oxidation (fire is a chemical process involving the rapid oxidation of a fuel being acted upon), thus reducing the rate at which energy is released and the amount of heat generated.

The use of these retadents is a ticklish matter. If used in improper concentrations they can result in a loss of strength or a breakdown of the fibers over time. Some chemicals can lead to skin rashes and cannot be used in clothing, especially infant's clothing. Some will wash out in your washer machine. Proper fire retarding of fabrics should always be doneby a manufacturer rather than at home as an afterthought.

Materials which are usually considered unburnable will burn in the proper circunstances. Aluminum will burn in a nitrogen atmosphere, magnesium will burn in the open air. magnesium powder is very flammable, almost to the point of explosibility, especially if water is put upon it in inadequate measures. Steel in skyscrapers are compromised at fairly low temperatures such as 600 to 800 degrees ferenheit, and so if they are part of the load bearing structure, they are encased in concrete to insulate them.

I hope this has helped you with your project in some small way.

Thanks for thinking about us,

Donald E Duggan

(Print matter on this subject can be found in the NFPA handbook, International Fire service Training Association's "Essentials of Firefighting" and other publications from the IFSTA)

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