It’s not much bigger than a standard oven, but the burner box in this new pyrometric laboratory in Canberra can reach temperatures of 800 degrees Celsius.
The University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra “fire lab” produces the kind of conditions that firefighters can be exposed to, and mechanical engineering student Jonathan Lu is testing how different protective clothing stacks up under such ferocious conditions.
“[I’m testing] how the material behaves when exposed to different kinds of heat exposure, whether that be radiant or direct exposure,” he said.
“[For example], I’m testing a material used in the 2013 Rural Fire Service jacket and then I’ll test a multi-layer material used by ACT Fire and Rescue, and just see how different the flame spread speed is and how quickly it ignites.”
It is hoped his findings will be used in future research to improve flame-resistant clothing and better protect firefighters, particularly those battling blazes in the bush.
“The challenge for the firefighters when they fight the bushfires is that topography of the area can change, the wind can change, and affect them in a very terrible way,” Maryam Ghodrat, lead researcher and senior lecturer in mechanical engineering, said.
“To be able to make fabrics more flame resistant may give our firefighters enough protection, enough time to get to shelter.
“It would give them peace of mind that they are well-equipped with their gear.”
UNSW Canberra fire lab an Australian first
The fire lab — set up by Ms Ghodrat — also houses a smouldering test device, oxygen index analyser, and a modular subsonic wind tunnel, and is believed to be the first of its kind in Australia.
Scientists and students are able to set fire to a range of materials in the lab, including fabrics, plastics and timbers, and measure how quickly they catch fire, how fast they burn, how hot they get, and how long they smoulder, as well as the chemicals and gasses they emit.
Engineering student Matt Hordern is using the equipment to test the flammability of different plastic car parts that he’s retrieved from a local wreckers’ yard.
“I’m looking at essentially setting them on fire, looking at how they behave whilst they’re on fire and then taking down anything interesting I think would relate to vehicle safety,” he said.
He is comparing the quality of materials used in various makes and models, from small hatchbacks to high-end four-wheel drives, to determine their safety if they catch fire in an accident.
“I’m looking also at toxic gas production. I’m looking at the different gases that are produced and what kind of effect that can have on people.”
Making buildings more fire resistant
The main focus of the fire lab research is to work out how to better protect Australian homes and residents from fire.
To do that, Ms Ghodrat and her team are investigating what makes buildings vulnerable to fire and developing sustainable, environmentally friendly fire-retardant materials.
“What we aim for is to contribute to fire-fighting protective clothing and building materials in terms of the roofing and walls and make them more fire resistant,” she said.
In the long term, the research has the potential to influence construction industry standards by producing and recommending safer building materials.
Ms Ghodrat said that was particularly important with urban footprints expanding and more homes being built closer to bushland.
“With climate change and severe bushfires happening in Australia and all around the world … the importance and significance of this research is really bold and highlighted,” she said.
“To find a way to protect our property and our lives is really essential for the Australian climate.
“We need to be prepared and the best way is to inform the builder, the land developer, the council, the government, the property owner to make their property safer, and fire resistant material is basically the key.”