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Scientists Create Fire-proof, Eco-friendly Plastic

Scientists have created a synthetic polymer that doesnt burn, making it an attractive alternative to traditional plastics, many of which are so flammable they are sometimes referred to as solid gasoline.

The new polymer wouldnt need the flame-retardant chemicals that are added to many plastics before they can be used in bus seats, airplanes, textiles and countless household items. Some of these additives have been showing up in dust in homes and offices, fish, fat cells and breast milk, raising concern that they pose a risk to human health and the environment.

Led by UMass Amherst scientists Richard Farris, Bryan Coughlin and Todd Emrick, the research team presented an update on their work to industry representatives and scientists from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Army on May 14. The team described the new polymer in the journal Macromolecules last year.

According to the FAA, 40 percent of passengers who survive the impact of an airplane accident die in the fire that follows. The agency requires that aircraft use the most flame-resistant plastics that are available, but were shooting for a fire-proof cabin, says Richard Lyon, manager of the FAAs fire research program. To get there we have to invent plastics that dont yet existplastics that dont burn, or burn so slowly that there is ample time for passengers to escape from an aircraft fire, he says.

When something burns, it decomposes thermally; some of it becomes a gasthats what burns as flameand what doesnt burn becomes what polymer scientists refer to as charthats the solid that is left behind. The goal when creating flame-resistant plastics is to have a very high char yieldmore char means less fire and fewer volatile chemicals being released. Most common plastics burn readily (polypropylene has a char yield of zero), so fire-retardant additives are mixed inthese often are halog
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