The University of Massachusetts Amherst
has created a synthetic polymer that doesn't burn, making it an attractive alternative to traditional plastics. According to the FAA
, 40 percent of passengers who survive the impact of a crash will die in the fire that follows. The agency requires that aircraft use the most flame-resistant plastics that are available. "We're shooting for a fire-proof cabin," says Richard Lyon, manager of the FAA
's fire research program. "To get there we have to invent plastics that don't yet exist - plastics that don't burn, or burn so slowly that there is ample time for passengers to escape from an aircraft fire,"
he says. The polymer that the UMass team synthesized is a building block of plastics and doesn't contain any halogens. It uses BHDB (bishydroxydeoxybenzoin) as its primary building block. BDHB releases water vapor when it breaks down in a fire, rather than toxic gases. The goal when creating flame-resistant plastics is to have a very high char yield - more char means less fire and fewer volatile chemicals being released. The Umass synthesized polymer has a naturally high char yield (70 percent) in comparison with, for instance, polypropylene (with its char yield of zero). The other problem resolved by BDHB is that it doesn't require fire-retardant additives which are universally environmentally unfriendly.