Using nanotechnology to minimize fire damage
The United States Fire Administration reported over 1.3 million structure fires in 2017 causing an estimated 3,400 deaths, 14,670 injuries and $23 billion dollars in damages. The high cost of today’s fire problem in lives and property is leading some researchers to look for innovative fire protection solutions.
One such solution is nanotechnology — the science, engineering and technology conducted at the nanoscale, (which is about 1 to 100 nanometers) that enables the manipulation of materials to fit existing needs. Nanotechnology is being used to make building and product materials stronger and lighter. Currently, nanotechnology applications in building materials include insulating aerogel materials (composed of silica nanoparticles separated by nanopores) used as an insulator for walls and between window panes to prevent heat loss in buildings; carbon nanotubes that can fill the voids that occur in conventional concrete and stop cracks from forming, resulting in longer lasting concrete; solar cells that can be installed as a coating on windows or other building materials (referred to as building integrated photovoltaics); nanophotonic material that radiates heat back into a space as infrared radiation, which allows cooling of a building without having to use electricity to run air conditioners; and nanoparticle-infused paint that inhibits the growth of mold, mildew and bacteria growing in moist areas of buildings such as bathrooms or on the exterior siding.
Nanotechnology is also being used to make building and product materials more fire resistant. Starch-based coatings are available that can be applied to textiles and furniture to increase fire resistance as well as hydrogels for fire-resistant blankets and clothing to absorb heat and prevent thermal burns. Brick, mortar and other clay products that lower thermal conductivity and increase gas barrier properties have been introduced. Polyetherimide nanocomposite foams — which can be combined with nanoclays that won’t release toxic gases when exposed to flame — have been developed to enhance thermal protection for appliances. And nanofiber mats, used in place of building insulation and some foams, attract thermal energy from flames, compartmentalize it and absorb it while self-extinguishing the fire, which limits fire spread and damage and provides occupants with more time to escape.
There are many potential benefits to leveraging nanotechnology in the future for fire safety, including smoke alarms that can detect particles at the very start of a fire, fire-resistant nanocoatings that increase material strength and durability to better withstand high thermal energy and prevent fires, and fire-suppression systems that use various chemical mixtures to break down to particle size to better extinguish fires.
For further reading, “The Implications of Nanotechnology for the Fire Service: Avoiding the Mistakes of the Past” by Daniel John O’Sullivan; “Nanotechnology: The future of fire safety” by Richard Olawoyin; and “Dangers of nanotechnology: Potential fire concerns and safety frameworks” by Dejana Dimitrijevic are available through the National Emergency Training Center Library online, which provides information and resources on fire, emergency management and other all-hazards subjects.