Flame Retardants: Background and Effectiveness
Fire safety can be achieved by means of active or passive fire protection. Passive fire protection involves using materials or products with superior fire performance so as to either minimize the probability of ignition or, if ignition does occur, minimize the damaging effects of the resulting fire. Flame retardants offer one way of providing passive fire protection.
When a combustible material (often a polymer) is used in applications where fire safety is important, the lack of intrinsic fire safety must be addressed to provide passive fire protection. There are four possible approaches, the first two involving flame retardants.
Adding flame retardants (i.e., using additive flame retardants)
Creating new materials with better fire performance though syntheses of variations of the material (i.e., using reactive flame retardants)
Blending or otherwise compounding the material with other materials with better fire performance (i.e., creating blends or mixtures)
Encapsulating the material or separating it from potential exposure to the heat insult (e.g., using barriers).
Typical applications where fire safety is critical include consumer products (such as upholstered furniture or mattresses), electrical and electronics (such as wire and cable, circuit boards, computer or appliance housings), and building products (such as interior finish, insulation or roofing materials).
It is always possible to choose non-combustible materials for any or all of these applications, but such a choice would typically limit either the esthetics or the comfort of the product in question. For example, combustible foams are typically used as paddings for upholstered furniture because they provide comfort and resilience. Foams could be replaced by steel or concrete, but that would provide much lower comfort. Interior finish (such as wall linings) can be wood or decorative wall coverings, or it can be gypsum board or concrete, but the latter option involves a clear loss of appeal.
Flame retardants are materials intended for incorporation into combustible materials to improve their fire performance or to meet fire test requirements. Many studies have shown that flame retardants can improve ignitability and/or reduce flame spread. Clearly, fire will not occur if no ignition happens: thus, a delay in ignition will improve fire safety. However, fire hazard assumes that ignition has occurred and studies have shown that flame retardants also have a beneficial effect on heat release, which is the most important fire property.
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