New PVC additives can make vinyl more fire-retardant without toxic heavy metals

08/16/04

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 23 — One of the most widely used plastics in the world — PVC — could be on the verge of becoming more fire retardant and environmentally friendly, thanks to the work of researchers at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

PVC is practically ubiquitous in our society, especially in many homes. Household products from water pipes to shower curtains and house siding to window shades and wall coverings are made from poly(vinyl chloride).

Polymer chemists developed additives to make PVC more resistant to fire shortly after its commercialization in the 1930s, but some of these additives contain heavy metals that can be toxic to humans and the environment, a topic of much discussion and debate among environmental groups and the industry for several years. Organic chemist William H. Starnes, Ph.D., of the College of William and Mary described new, more benign additives today at the 228th national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.

Starnes and fellow chemistry professor Robert D. Pike, Ph.D., have replaced heavy metals the industry currently uses, such as molybdenum, with copper, which is essentially non-toxic. The new additives appear to work in part like many traditional fire retardants: In the presence of heat, they create chemical crosslinks within the polymer to form an inert char on its surface that helps block flammable gases inside from escaping.

The Starnes-Pike additives appear to improve the way fire retardants make the char, however. Current technology uses electron-seeking compounds called Lewis acids, which in very intense temperatures can start attacking the crosslinks of char, defeating its own mechanism to reduce smoke and fire. The new additives rely instead on copper atoms to stitch together the crosslinks.

Test conducted within the PVC industry "suggest our additives are actually better," says Starnes. "That's why we're so excited about them."

The hurdle likely remaining is color. "Cuprous copper [Cu(1+)] tends to actually give us white, which is desirable," he noted. "The problem, though, is that it oxidizes fairly easily to cupric copper [Cu(2+)], which carries an aqua color" that can tint the final product.

As always, the bottom line for industry is cost. The synthesis of the copper-based fire retardants and smoke suppressors is "quite easy," says Starnes. "If we can solve the color problem, the economics would be favorable, at least in a preliminary way."

These more benign additives would not be Starnes's first. His group is also developing alternatives to make PVC less vulnerable to heat, and which are even closer to practical use in industry.

"PVC intrinsically is somewhat unstable. In the presence of heat, it will fairly easily lose hydrogen chloride and gradually turn yellow and, eventually, black," he explained. "For at least 50 years chemists have tried to develop organic heat stabilizers to replace those containing heavy metals. And we're now to the point where some companies are interested in licensing ours."

Starnes himself came to academia from industry, first as head of plastic additives research for Esso (now ExxonMobil) and then as a plastics research supervisor with AT&T Bell Laboratories. He joined the William and Mary faculty in 1989. His work on PVC fire retardants and smoke suppressors is funded by the National Science Foundation.

The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization, chartered by the U.S. Congress, with a multidisciplinary membership of more than 159,000 chemists and chemical engineers. It publishes numerous scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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