Fire retardant

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A fire retardant is a substance that is used to slow or stop the spread of fire or reduce its intensity. This is commonly accomplished by chemical reactions that reduce the flammability of fuels or delay their combustion. [1] [2] Fire retardants may also cool the fuel through physical action or endothermic chemical reactions. Fire retardants are available as powder, to be mixed with water, as fire-fighting foams and fire-retardant gels. Fire retardants are also available as coatings or sprays to be applied to an object. [3]

Combustion high-temperature exothermic redox chemical reaction between a fuel (the reductant) and an oxidant, usually atmospheric oxygen, that produces oxidized in a mixture termed as smoke

Combustion, or burning, is a high-temperature exothermic redox chemical reaction between a fuel (the reductant) and an oxidant, usually atmospheric oxygen, that produces oxidized, often gaseous products, in a mixture termed as smoke. Combustion in a fire produces a flame, and the heat produced can make combustion self-sustaining. Combustion is often a complicated sequence of elementary radical reactions. Solid fuels, such as wood and coal, first undergo endothermic pyrolysis to produce gaseous fuels whose combustion then supplies the heat required to produce more of them. Combustion is often hot enough that incandescent light in the form of either glowing or a flame is produced. A simple example can be seen in the combustion of hydrogen and oxygen into water vapor, a reaction commonly used to fuel rocket engines. This reaction releases 242 kJ/mol of heat and reduces the enthalpy accordingly (at constant temperature and pressure):

An endothermic process is any process which requires or absorbs energy from its surroundings, usually in the form of heat. It may be a chemical process, such as dissolving ammonium nitrate in water, or simply the melting of ice cubes. The term was coined by Marcellin Berthelot from the Greek roots endo-, derived from the word "endon" (ἔνδον) meaning "within", and the root "therm" (θερμ-), meaning "hot" or "warm" in the sense that a reaction depends on absorbing heat if it is to proceed. The opposite of an endothermic process is an exothermic process, one that releases, "gives out" energy in the form of heat. Thus in each term the prefix refers to where heat goes as the reaction occurs, though in reality it only refers to where the energy goes, without necessarily being in the form of heat.


Fire retardants are commonly used in fire fighting, where they may be applied aerially or from the ground.

Aerial firefighting Aerial service used to drop water or other liquids to combat wildfires.

Aerial firefighting is the use of aircraft and other aerial resources to combat wildfires. The types of aircraft used include fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Smokejumpers and rappellers are also classified as aerial firefighters, delivered to the fire by parachute from a variety of fixed-wing aircraft, or rappelling from helicopters. Chemicals used to fight fires may include water, water enhancers such as foams and gels, and specially formulated fire retardants such as Phos-Chek.

Principles of operation

In general, fire retardants reduce the flammability of materials by either blocking the fire physically or by initiating a chemical reaction that stops the fire.

Chemical reaction process that results in the interconversion of chemical species

A chemical reaction is a process that leads to the chemical transformation of one set of chemical substances to another. Classically, chemical reactions encompass changes that only involve the positions of electrons in the forming and breaking of chemical bonds between atoms, with no change to the nuclei, and can often be described by a chemical equation. Nuclear chemistry is a sub-discipline of chemistry that involves the chemical reactions of unstable and radioactive elements where both electronic and nuclear changes can occur.

Physical action

There are several ways in which the combustion process can be retarded by physical action:

Water vapor gaseous phase of water; unlike other forms of water, water vapor is invisible

Water vapor, water vapour or aqueous vapor is the gaseous phase of water. It is one state of water within the hydrosphere. Water vapor can be produced from the evaporation or boiling of liquid water or from the sublimation of ice. Unlike other forms of water, water vapor is invisible. Under typical atmospheric conditions, water vapor is continuously generated by evaporation and removed by condensation. It is less dense than air and triggers convection currents that can lead to clouds.

Carbon dioxide chemical compound

Carbon dioxide (chemical formula CO2) is a colorless gas with a density about 60% higher than that of dry air. Carbon dioxide consists of a carbon atom covalently double bonded to two oxygen atoms. It occurs naturally in Earth's atmosphere as a trace gas. The current concentration is about 0.04% (410 ppm) by volume, having risen from pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm. Natural sources include volcanoes, hot springs and geysers, and it is freed from carbonate rocks by dissolution in water and acids. Because carbon dioxide is soluble in water, it occurs naturally in groundwater, rivers and lakes, ice caps, glaciers and seawater. It is present in deposits of petroleum and natural gas. Carbon dioxide is odorless at normally encountered concentrations. However, at high concentrations, it has a sharp and acidic odor.

Radical (chemistry) molecular entity such as ·CH3, ·SnH3, Cl· possessing an unpaired electron (in these formulae the dot,·, symbolizing the unpaired electron, should be placed so as to indicate the atom of highest spin density, if this is possible)

In chemistry, a radical is an atom, molecule, or ion that has an unpaired valence electron. With some exceptions, these unpaired electrons make radicals highly chemically reactive. Many radicals spontaneously dimerize. Most organic radicals have short lifetimes.

Commonly used fire retardant additives include mixtures of huntite and hydromagnesite, aluminium hydroxide, and magnesium hydroxide. When heated, aluminium hydroxide dehydrates to form aluminum oxide (alumina, Al2O3), releasing water vapor in the process. This reaction absorbs a great deal of heat, cooling the material into which it is incorporated. Additionally, the residue of alumina forms a protective layer on the material's surface. Mixtures of huntite and hydromagnesite work in a similar manner. They endothermically decompose releasing both water and carbon dioxide, [4] [5] giving fire retardant properties [6] [7] [8] to the materials in which they are incorporated.

Huntite carbonate mineral

Huntite is a carbonate mineral with the chemical formula Mg3Ca(CO3)4. Huntite crystallizes in the trigonal system and typically occurs as platy crystals and powdery masses. The most common industrial use of huntite is as a natural mixture with hydromagnesite as a flame retardant or fire retardant additive for polymers.

Hydromagnesite carbonate mineral

Hydromagnesite is a hydrated magnesium carbonate mineral with the formula Mg5(CO3)4(OH)2·4H2O.

Aluminium hydroxide chemical compound

Aluminium hydroxide, Al(OH)3, is found in nature as the mineral gibbsite (also known as hydrargillite) and its three much rarer polymorphs: bayerite, doyleite, and nordstrandite. Aluminium hydroxide is amphoteric in nature, i.e., it has both basic and acidic properties. Closely related are aluminium oxide hydroxide, AlO(OH), and aluminium oxide or alumina (Al2O3), the latter of which is also amphoteric. These compounds together are the major components of the aluminium ore bauxite.

Chemical action


Portable fire extinguisher FireExtinguisherABC.jpg
Portable fire extinguisher

Fire extinguishers

Class A foam is used as a fire retardant in 2.5 gallon [APW] and [CAFS] extinguishers to contain incipient brush fires and grass fires by creating a fire break. Other chemical retardants are capable of rendering class A material and Class B fuels non-flammable and extinguishing class A, class B, and some class D fires.[ citation needed ] Fire retardant slurries dropped from aircraft are normally applied ahead of a wildfire to prevent ignition, while fire suppression agents are used to extinguish fires.

Surface coating

Objects may be coated with fire retardants. For example, Christmas trees are sprayed with retardants. As a tree dries out it becomes very flammable and a fire-hazard.

Steel structures have a fire retardant coating around columns and beams to prevent structural elements from weakening during a fire.

Dormitories in the US are also considering using these products.[ citation needed ] Since 2000, 109 people have died in fires in dormitories or off-campus student housing across the nation, according to Campus Firewatch, an online newsletter.[ when? ] Campus Firewatch's publisher, Ed Comeau, said a January 2000 fire at Seton Hall University in New Jersey drew attention to the perils of fire on campus. A common area in a Seton Hall dorm caught fire after two students ignited a banner from a bulletin board. The fire quickly spread to furniture and killed three students and injured 58 others. [11]

Forest-fire fighting

A MAFFS-equipped Air National Guard C-130 Hercules drops fire retardant on wildfires in Southern California Hercules C130 bombardier d eau Californie.jpg
A MAFFS-equipped Air National Guard C-130 Hercules drops fire retardant on wildfires in Southern California
Red-dyed line of fire retardant stands out clearly on this Arizona hill, to control the Alambre Fire Phos-check line.jpg
Red-dyed line of fire retardant stands out clearly on this Arizona hill, to control the Alambre Fire

Early fire retardants were mixtures of water and thickening agents, and later included borates [12] and ammonium phosphates.[ citation needed ]

Generally, fire retardants are dropped from aircraft or applied by ground crews around a wildfire's edges in an effort to contain its spread. This allows ground crews time to work to extinguish the fire. However, when needed, retardant can also be dropped directly onto flames to cool the fire and reduce flame length. [13]

Aerial firefighting

Aerial firefighting is a method to combat wildfires using aircraft. The types of aircraft used include fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Smokejumpers and rappellers are also classified as aerial firefighters, being delivered by parachute from a variety of fixed-wing aircraft, or rappelling from helicopters. Chemicals used to fight fires may include water, water enhancers, or specially-formulated fire retardants. [14]



Wildfire retardants

Fire retardants applied to wildfires are usually a mixture of water and chemicals designed to wet the area as well as chemically retard a fire's progression through vegetation. Typically it is colored [15] so that the application area can be seen from the air. New[ when? ] gel-based retardants which meet NFPA Standard 1150 are being introduced into use. These are dyed other colors to differentiate them from the traditional red retardant. The gels and their dyes are designed to biodegrade naturally. [16] Phos-Chek is a brand of long-term retardant currently approved for wildland fire use. [17]

Environmental concerns

Forest fire retardants that are used are generally considered non-toxic, [18] but even less-toxic compounds carry some risk when organisms are exposed to large amounts. [19] Fire retardants used in firefighting can be toxic to fish and wildlife as well as firefighters [20] by releasing dioxins and furans when halogenated fire retardants are burned during fires, [21] and drops within 300 feet of bodies of water are generally prohibited unless lives or property are directly threatened. [22] The US Forest Service is the governing agency that conducts research and monitors the effect of fire retardants on wildland systems in the US. [23] [24]

A study published in June 2014 found that marine bacteria have the ability to manufacture a non-synthetic source of chemically identical PBDEs. These chemicals are used as flame retardant, but are known to be toxic to the environment. [25]

See also

Related Research Articles

Fire rapid oxidation of a material

Fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the exothermic chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products. Slower oxidative processes like rusting or digestion are not included by this definition.

Polyurethane polymer composed of a chain of organic units joined by carbamate (urethane) links

Polyurethane is a polymer composed of organic units joined by carbamate (urethane) links. While most polyurethanes are thermosetting polymers that do not melt when heated, thermoplastic polyurethanes are also available.

Magnesium hydroxide chemical compound

Magnesium hydroxide is the inorganic compound with the chemical formula Mg(OH)2. It occurs in nature as the mineral brucite. It is a white solid with low solubility in water (Ksp = 5.61×10−12). Magnesium hydroxide is a common component of antacids, such as milk of magnesia, as well as laxatives.

Brucite hydroxide mineral

Brucite is the mineral form of magnesium hydroxide, with the chemical formula Mg(OH)2. It is a common alteration product of periclase in marble; a low-temperature hydrothermal vein mineral in metamorphosed limestones and chlorite schists; and formed during serpentinization of dunites. Brucite is often found in association with serpentine, calcite, aragonite, dolomite, magnesite, hydromagnesite, artinite, talc and chrysotile.

The term flame retardants subsumes a diverse group of chemicals which are added to manufactured materials, such as plastics and textiles, and surface finishes and coatings. Flame retardants are activated by the presence of an ignition source and are intended to prevent or slow the further development of ignition by a variety of different physical and chemical methods. They may be added as a copolymer during the polymerisation of a polymer, mixed with polymer at an moulding or extrusion process or, in particular for textiles, applied as a topical finish. Mineral flame retardants are typically additive while organohalogen and organophosphorus compounds can be either reactive or additive.

Fire triangle model for understanding the necessary ingredients for most fires

The Fire Triangle or Combustion Triangle is a simple model for understanding the necessary ingredients for most fires.

This glossary of wildfire terms is a list of definitions of terms and concepts relevant to wildfires and wildland firefighting. Except where noted, terms have largely been sourced from a 1998 Fireline Handbook transcribed for a Conflict 21 counter-terrorism studies website by the Air National Guard.

Diammonium phosphate chemical compound

Diammonium phosphate (DAP) (chemical formula (NH4)2HPO4, IUPAC name diammonium hydrogen phosphate) is one of a series of water-soluble ammonium phosphate salts that can be produced when ammonia reacts with phosphoric acid. Solid diammonium phosphate shows a dissociation pressure of ammonia as given by the following expression and equation:

Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are organobromine compounds that have an inhibitory effect on combustion chemistry and tend to reduce the flammability of products containing them. The brominated variety of commercialized chemical flame retardants comprise approximately 19.7% of the market. They are effective in plastics and textile applications like electronics, clothes and furniture.


Phos-Chek is a brand of long-term fire retardants, class A foams, and gels manufactured by ICL Performance Products in Ontario, California and Moreland, Idaho.


Polyisocyanurate, also referred to as PIR, polyiso, or ISO, is a thermoset plastic typically produced as a foam and used as rigid thermal insulation. The starting materials are similar to those used in polyurethane (PUR) except that the proportion of methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) is higher and a polyester-derived polyol is used in the reaction instead of a polyether polyol. The resulting chemical structure is significantly different, with the isocyanate groups on the MDI trimerising to form isocyanurate groups which the polyols link together, giving a complex polymeric structure.

Firefighting foam

Firefighting foam is a foam used for fire suppression. Its role is to cool the fire and to coat the fuel, preventing its contact with oxygen, resulting in suppression of the combustion. Fire-fighting foam was invented by the Russian engineer and chemist Aleksandr Loran in 1902.

Low smoke zero halogen or low smoke free of halogen is a material classification typically used for cable jacketing in the wire and cable industry. LSZH cable jacketing is composed of thermoplastic or thermoset compounds that emit limited smoke and no halogen when exposed to high sources of heat.

Fire retardant gel

Fire-retardant gels are superabsorbent polymer slurries with a "consistency almost like petroleum jelly." Used as fire retardants, they can be used for structure protection and in direct-attack applications against wildfires. They are also used in the movie industry to protect stunt persons from flames when filming action movie scenes.

Ammonium polyphosphate food additive

Ammonium polyphosphate commercially produced by Clariant, (former business area of Hoechst AG), Budenheim and other sources is an inorganic salt of polyphosphoric acid and ammonia containing both chains and possibly branching. Its chemical formula is [NH4 PO3]n(OH)2 showing that each monomer consists of an orthophosphate radical of a phosphorus atom with three oxygens and one negative charge neutralized by an ammonium cation leaving two bonds free to polymerize. In the branched cases some monomers are missing the ammonium anion and instead link to three other monomers.

Fire-safe polymers are polymers that are resistant to degradation at high temperatures. There is need for fire-resistant polymers in the construction of small, enclosed spaces such as skyscrapers, boats, and airplane cabins. In these tight spaces, ability to escape in the event of a fire is compromised, increasing fire risk. In fact, some studies report that about 20% of victims of airplane crashes are killed not by the crash itself but by ensuing fires. Fire-safe polymers also find application as adhesives in aerospace materials, insulation for electronics, and in military materials such as canvas tenting.


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