Reasons for Research in Industry

In an academic research setting, projects are run to increase and develop understanding of specific areas of interest. In an industrial research setting, while some areas are looked into for understanding and interest, it is still a profit driven environment, dictated by the market and the laws which govern it.

In some of my earlier blog entries I’ve written about the chemistry I work with and some of the things I do while I’m here on my year placement at DuPont Teijin films (DTF). As a quick reminder, my main work this year is on the development of flame retardant polyester films for use in all sorts of applications. One thing I haven’t really spoken about so far is why.

Sb2O3

Antimony Trioxide (exists as a dimer) – a suspected carcinogen Source: wikimedia

Back in the day when environmental impact and health effects were either not fully understood or not a major concern, flame retardant additives were, generally, pretty nasty substances. Or if they weren’t nasty to begin with, upon combustion in a fire scenario, they soon gave off some horrible stuff. A few examples of what used to be used to gain flame retardant behaviour include: antinomy trioxide (now a suspected carcinogen), Sn-Pb (Tin-lead solder; lead is toxic at any dose, a carcinogen and can cause birth defects), and a myriad of halogenated compounds.

Understanding the effects these “old” flame retardants have has resulted in new legislation being put in place in the EU by REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals), I’m focusing on the EU because that’s where we are, but these are also monitored elsewhere! This means that the market for non-halogenated, non-polluting and safe, flame retardants has been growing rapidly in recent years. One study claims the international compound annual growth rate (of the non-halogenated FR market revenue) will be 8.1 % between 2012 and 2018.[1] The drive for non-halogenated flame retardants is so high as a result of the massive environmental impact they have. Halogens will act in the gas-phase mechanism for fire suppression; i.e. in a fire, the halogenated compound will break down and release halogen radicals, which act to reduce fuel to the fire by mopping up all the other radicals released during pyrolysis. This mode of action makes them particularly effective flame retardants, but halogen radicals (especially bromine) are persistent in the environment and contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer, as well as being toxic through bioaccumulation.

wilton centre

The Wilton Centre, Redcar – where I do all my research. Source: http://www.ukspa.org.uk/members/wc

There are still a few fluorinated and chlorinated flame retardants on the market, but REACH legislation has resulted in brominated flame retardants becoming almost unused within Europe. It should be noted, however, that bromine was the most effective of the halogens for its flame retardant behaviour.

Finding alternatives which are just as effective and also suitable for application with PET (polyethylene terephthalate; DTF’s main product) is what my year has involved. There are literally thousands of non-halogenated flame retardants on the market at the moment, and we’ve been trying to whittle them down and test them within our products to create the best flame retardant films possible. These have to meet international criteria (through ISO flame testing), be low cost and be easy to manufacture on DTF’s pre-existing film lines.

That’s where the difference lies between academia and industry; even if I find a fantastic non-halogenated flame retardant, if it’s too expensive or not compatible with DTF’s processes then it’s no good to us. Whereas, in an academic research setting, it would be of great interest and probably warrant further investigation. My research is dictated by legislation and the current market, not by my own curiosity, but don’t worry – it doesn’t make it any less interesting!

 

References:

[1] http://www.transparencymarketresearch.com/non-halogenated-flame-retardants.html

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