UMass Lowell receives $390,000 research grant from Army

02/07/2006
By From the Lowell Sun

By LORI GIGUERE, Sun Staff
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- Researchers at UMass Lowell have received a $390,000 Army grant to develop new flame-resistant materials that will eventually be used in clothing for soldiers.

The Army's Environmental Quality Programs grant was announced recently by Arthur Watterson, director of the Institute for Nano Science and Engineering Technology at UMass Lowell, and Lynne Samuelson of the Natick Soldier Systems Center, who has been working in collaboration with the university.

The grant will fund research for three years by National Research Council post-doctorate fellow Ravi Mosurkal, who joined Samuelson and Watterson on the project last month.

The grant money will be used to pay Mosurkal for three years as well as cover some materials and travel expenses.

"We knew we had potential with this material. ... It's environmentally safe and benign, both to produce and to use, and it solves many of the problems associated with flame retardant compounds in wide use," said Watterson.

Currently, the Army is using Kevlar and Nomex to produce flame-retardant clothing. But both materials are expensive, and other materials are too heavy to be effective in the field or melt when heated, which can cause melt drip burns.

Using "green chemistry," researchers hope to develop a new flame-resistant polymer that would be more effective, less expensive and safer for the environment. A polymer is a plastic-like substance made of either natural or chemical compounds.

Green chemistry uses naturally occurring enzymes instead of solvents and harsh chemicals to form these compounds, Samuelson said.

"Environmentally, this is very friendly," said Samuelson. "It is environmentally and human safe."

The process would eliminate halogen and bromine from flame-retardant materials. Both of which, according to Samuelson, are harmful to both the environment and people.

Green chemistry is more cost-effective than traditional production. "We have to really find out the numbers exactly," says Mosurkal. "We are sure it will be much cheaper than the current polymer."

Mosurkal said part of the cost reduction is that many of the enzymes used are available commercially.

Mosurkal anticipates to have the cost of production determined within a year. "It could be sooner, It's too early to say."

Samuelson is also optimistic about reducing the risk for melt-drip burns, which can occur when some flame-retardant polymers heat up and start to melt, causing harsh burns when they come in contact with exposed skin. "This is a real concern for the military," said Samuelson. "Melt-drip burns can subsequently cause more injury."

She anticipates that the researchers at UMass Lowell will be able to develop a polymer with "minimal to no drip."

The goal of the research team is to synthesize these materials by the third year of research. "We hope to process them into coating and fibers for textile application," said Samuelson. If this is achieved than they could be applied in the field and used to create better flame retardant clothing for soldiers.

"If we are really successful we could develop a spinoff company," said Mosurkal.

The researchers are also joined by Ferdinando Bruno of the Natick Soldier Systems Center. Both Bruno and Mosurkal started their work on the project in January.