Future of Fire Retardant Fabrics

Brimming with smart devices and intelligent technologies, today’s world is no longer restricted to a single-tracked functionality in anything. Similarly, when it comes to clothing we no longer just think of covering our bodies, but we think “covering our bodies smartly”. Now that may sound tacky to start with, but it is not. With the new-age emerging technologies, where everything else is supposed to adapt itself to the environment and on-going changes, so are clothing.

Fire retardant fabric
Fig: Fire retardant fabric
So what is the concept behind smart clothing? – Quite simply your clothes are value-added textiles that are supposed to provide you a relaxed, comfortable, and stylish wear, at the same time, reciprocating to the changes in the environment. From the functionality point of view, smart fabrics can be categorized into aesthetics and performance enhancement textiles. Aesthetics refers to the ability of fabrics to gather energy from the environment and corresponding to the various inputs such as vibration, sound or heat. Whereas Performance Enhancement textiles are high-tech garments responding to the requirements of extreme sports and professions. These clothes help improve physical performance and control body temperatures by offering receptiveness to factors such as muscle vibration, the frequency of heartbeats, wind or heat resistant fabric etc. In addition to that, there are many characteristics that are being incorporated into clothing and will be the ‘new normal’ in future in clothing, such as anti-microbial properties, anti-static quality, oil and water repellence, soil and stain resistance, flexibility, and breath-ability.

But a very major development is that textile industry is moving towards being environment friendly. So the concept of eco-friendly garments is emerging. This is not a new concept, but the innovative technologies of today are certainly changing the way this concept is perceived, putting it in a broader perspective. From a plant free production to low water consumption to low environmental impact, future of textiles is definitely to empower human-kind by improving people’s everyday life and general well-being as well as benefit the industry and the environment. The future of specialty fabrics like fire-resistant or flame-retardant textiles is no different.

How does the Future look like for FR Fabrics?
As the compliance requirements for different industries become more meticulous and the need for safety and employee’s general well-being continues to grow, fire resistant fabric manufacturers are determinedly looking for ways to continue to evolve with these requirements and design the best possible solution in proactive protective apparel for their clients. The future of fire retardent clothing specifically holds a strong blend of both aesthetics and performance enhancement. Above and beyond their functional requirements to provide heat, fire or arc flash resistance, the future FR textiles are also expected to be responsive to their environment and climate changes. Their job is not just to protect the wearer’s body but to also improve performance at the workplace by offering qualities such as body temperature control, motion enhancement, comfort, breathability, evaporation, moisture control, flexibility, and anti-static property, all bundled into an attractive package. This is called ‘functional diversity’ or ‘multi-functional FR clothing’.

But obviously different industries have varied requirements as do different climates and indeed workplace environment. This is precisely why flame-retardants fabric suppliers are focused on providing more customized clothing solutions in the future by designing and engineering adiverse range of versatile FR fabric blends to suit their client’s specific requirements. For instance, a client might need intense heat resistant properties in their FR wear mixed with the light weight of the fabric, breathability as well as moisture control in a very hot climate. Whereas, another client may require the same FR resistance in warmer clothing that also allows free bodily movement. So the future of FR garments is definitely headed for greater customization for individual clients.

However, with earth’s environment under-going rapid changes and the call for manufacturing eco-friendly products, gaining momentum with every passing day, FR textile industry is also bent upon introducing innovative solutions that are toxins-free and environment friendly. So naturally, this means, treated FR fabrics that use more eco-friendly flame retardants or inherent FR fabrics using bio-degradable fiber blends that are easy on the environment. Until now and still, for the large part, FR textile industry relies on traditional brominated and halogen-based flame retardants. But because of growing opposition and resistance from environmental organizations, the push towards eco-friendly FR fabric production is more of an obligatory trend than a just a conscious choice.

Future Trends and Latest Innovations:
If we were,to sum up, the future developments for fire or flame retardant clothing, we can summarize those under three major trends: proactive, multi-functional garments; client-specific customized FR solutions; and eco-friendly FR textiles. To this end, there are many innovations that have taken place within the FR industry to accommodate for environment friendly flame retardants.

Before moving forward though, let us see what is so wrong with the traditional brominated flame retardants. The brominated flame retardants contain toxic chemicals that give off highly contaminated gases upon ignition that are detrimental to both people and environment. These toxic substances are found to be vastly persistent in the environment having accumulated over time and thus become a part of food chain ultimately making way forour bodies. In addition, these chemicals are also associated with various health issues upon exposure such as skin allergies, respiratory problems, liver problems, neurobehavioral problems etc.

So the quest for alternative human and eco-friendly flame retardants remains fast in pursuit. To this end, many innovations have come forth and continue to evolve as more discoveries are met along the way. The initial research into phosphorous based chemicals for flame retardants expanded into nano materials, resulting in the advent of halogen-free flame retardants. By nature, these substances have a very low toxicity profile and they are bio-degradable which means they eventually mineralize in nature and do not have a harmful effect on the food chain.

Phosphorus-based flame retardants are composed of various organic and inorganic compounds that can either be reactive products, chemically bound into the polymer material; or additive products, incorporated into the material – initially being used in the production of polyurethane foams for FR textile industry. Nano-clay flame retardants are developed with clay – being a completely natural fire resistant material, the environmental concerns are minimal with these flame retardants.

However, the discovery of Nano-Intumescent technology for flame retardants is a feat in itself. These flame retardants expand upon exposure to flame to form tiny bubbles on the surface of the fabric creating a ‘multi-cellular char layer’ – aninsulating and protective barrier that prevents the fabric material from igniting rather than just controlling the spread of fire. Being miniscule in form, the water-based polymers have the tendency to soak in to each and every fiber of an FR material such as cotton and provide a highly specialized garment which is truly a ‘fire-proof’ fabric - low on toxicity profile but with a huge impact on the personal safety aspect.

Decidedly, FR fabric and chemical industry have new records to set in future and with the innovative technologies at hand, we are hopefully not very far from the day the fire-retardant textile industry will be churning out highly customized, multi-functional, eco-friendly smart FR fabrics completely free of brominated chemicals.

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Mazharul Islam Kiron is a textile consultant and researcher on online business promotion. He is working with one European textile machinery company as a country agent. He is also a contributor of Wikipedia.

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