The need to protect our home and work spaces from the danger of fire has been part of the civilized world for centuries. In the book “Fire Retardant Materials,” authors explain how chemistry was used by ancient civilizations to prevent fires. It is reported that the Chinese applied vinegar and alum to wood and then rubbed a layer of clay, creating a protective coating to help prevent the spread of fire. Some 3,000 years ago, the Egyptians were creating rudimentary fire-suppressant roofing materials when they soaked reed and grass with seawater before placing the materials on roofs. The dried salt crystals in the sea grass acted as the fire-suppression agent.

During the industrial revolution, catastrophic fires in factories in the United States and other industrialized countries emphasized the need to protect workers. Today, the importance of fire suppression continues in new ways. The development of electrical vehicles is an example of how new technology has created the demand for additional fire protection. In a recent post on The Moleculist, a blog by specialty chemicals provider Clariant, the technology needed for fire safety in the electric vehicle (EV) market is explained. The post quotes Sebastian Hoerold, Head of Technical Service Thermoplastics & Market Manager Flame Retardants at Clariant, who says, “The fire risk of electric vehicles is not higher but different from traditional cars with combustions engines.” One of those differences is the higher voltages and currents present in EVs. According to the post, while traditional vehicles use a 12-volt battery, all-electric cars can need as much as 800 volts or more. Additionally, the time when a car is not in use, but is charging, can also create a safety issue. These and other factors in the design of EVs have prompted car manufacturers to look to new fire-protection technology when designing their vehicles.

Architectural trends are also having an impact on the demand for fire-retardant technology in the coatings industry. An article published in the New York Times reports on the growing trend in Sweden and other Nordic countries towards larger buildings constructed of wood. According to the article, one of the major drivers in this trend is sustainability. Quoted in the article is Anna Ervast Oberg, a project manager at Folkhem, a real estate developer in Sweden that has committed to build new structures entirely from wood. Oberg told the New York Times that changing from a concrete structure to a wood structure results in a 50% reduction in emissions. Not only does sustainably sourced timber reduce the total greenhouse gas emissions from a construction project, but the wood in the building actually provides carbon storage. The article goes on to explain that one of the critical factors allowing for the switch from concrete to wood is the ability to control the threat of fire.

It is clear that the need for technologies in fire suppression and fire-retardant coatings is only increasing as the green economy presents new demands. Enter the intumescent coating.

A patent outlining the chemical composition of an intumescent was recorded in the late 40s, and commercial development of these coatings has continued since the 70s. According to SSPC’s 2011 Protective Coatings Glossary, an intumescent coating is “A fire-retardant coating that when heated forms a foam produced by nonflammable gases, such as carbon dioxide and ammonia. This results in a thick, highly insulating layer of carbon (about 50 times as thick as the original coating) that serves to protect the coated substrate from fire. See also FIRE-RETARDANT. [ASTM D 16]” These coatings include an acid source, a carbonaceous compound, foaming compounds and binding resins.

Since the technology for intumescent coatings was developed, demand has continued to grow. The latest study by market research firm Grand View Research estimates the market to be worth upwards of $1 billion in 2019, and predicted a compound annual growth rate of 4.6% from 2020 to 2027. Demand in the intumescent coatings market is very closely tied to activity in the construction industry.

As with many aspects of economy, the construction industry is aware of and responding to demand from consumers to operate in a more sustainable way. The World Green Building Council recently published a report that “argues for systemic and integrated infrastructure solutions to improve sustainability outcomes.” According to the report, “The urban built environment alone is responsible for 75% of annual global GHG emissions, with buildings accounting on its own for 37%.” There are many elements within the construction industry that need to be addressed to improve its sustainability outcomes. Among those elements are the sustainable sourcing of raw materials and developing sustainable building materials that have a lower carbon footprint. Protecting wood from fire with intumescent coatings formulated with the latest technology can be one of those solutions.