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U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan face a wide array of threats in the field, including burn injuries. Such injuries are increasing due to urban warfare, and can arise from a multitude of flame hazards, ranging from incidental and accidental burns to thermal injuries generated by artillery blasts and improvised explosive devices.
“The loss of highly trained military personnel in combat from burn injuries can severely impact the success of military operations,” says Dr. Ravi Mosurkal, an adjunct faculty at UMass Lowell’s Center for Advanced Materials and a senior National Research Council fellow at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC). “Millions of dollars are spent each year on burn treatments for military personnel, and these costs continue to rise each year.”
According to Mosurkal, current military clothing made from Nomex and Kevlar provides adequate flame protection, but the cost to issue these fabrics to every soldier is prohibitively expensive. Lower-cost solutions include treating cottons and nylons with flame-retardant coatings, but these treatments add 20 percent in weight and use toxic, halogenated polymers, many of which are being banned worldwide for environmental and human safety reasons. “Melt drip is another undesirable property of synthetic fibers, which can cause additional serious burns,” he says.
That’s why Mosurkal and his colleagues at the NSRDEC are developing flame-retardant clothing that is both cost effective and environmentally benign, and produces minimal melt drips. “We have demonstrated the synthesis, characterization and improved thermal and flame-retardant properties of novel polysiloxane copolymers and nanocomposites, which are expected to have wide use in military and commercial applications,” he says.
“This technology uses a novel ‘green chemistry’ approach that involves a highly selective class of enzymes called lipases. It is expected to produce a new class of fire-safe materials that eliminates both the generation of toxic materials upon combustion and the leaching of toxic compounds into the environment.”
Civilian applications of these new materials include flame-retardant clothing for firefighters, flame-retardant upholsteries for household and aviation furnishings, and fireproof circuits in electronics and telecommunications equipment.
“This work was done as collaboration between Profs. Arthur Watterson and Jayant Kumar of the Center for Advanced Materials and Dr. Lynne Samuelson of the NSRDEC,” says Mosurkal.
Through an Army Environmental Quality Basic Research Program, Mosurkal was awarded a three-year, $390,000 grant to pursue this research at the Natick Soldier center. His successes in this field have recently resulted in the funding by the Army of two new flame-retardant research projects, led by NSRDEC scientists Jason Soares, Wayne Muller and Romy Kirby.
“We hope to continue to advance the development of novel flame-retardant polymers through the expertise of UMass Lowell in materials science and the flame-retardant textile processing and characterization capabilities of the NSRDEC,” says Mosurkal.