By Dave Larsen
The Dayton Daily News
DAYTON, Ohio — Alex Morgan is out to save thousands of lives and millions of dollars in property damage each year with his research on fire-resistant materials.
Morgan, a University of Dayton Research Institute organic chemist and material scientist, sets things on fire in a basement laboratory at the UD School of Engineering. He performs as much as $175,000 in annual sponsored research for industrial customers, federal agencies and the U.S. military.
"The majority of what I do is helping customers improve their products to make them more fire safe," said Morgan, 39, who joined UDRI in 2005 and serves as leader of the advanced polymers group.
Morgan is "the most important academic fire researcher in this country," said Charles Wilkie, a professor emeritus at Marquette University who specializes in fire retardant research.
Morgan and Wilkie have collaborated on three books and coorganized a March symposium on the chemistry of fire retardants at the American Chemical Society's national conference in San Diego.
Morgan is in the third and final year of a $300,000 grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to investigate new fire retardant chemistries to improve the safety of flexible polyurethane foam, which is commonly found in home furniture and mattresses.
"In your house the foam is the most flammable object probably next to cooking oils," he said.
U.S. fire departments from 2005 to 2009 responded to an average of 7,040 home structure fires per year in which upholstered furniture was the first item ignited.
These fires caused an annual average of 500 civilian fire deaths, 890 civilian fire injuries, and $442 million in direct property damage, according to the National Fire Protection Association. On average, one of every 14 reported upholstered furniture fires resulted in death.
When ignited, polyurethane foam quickly transforms to liquid, creating a pool fire effect — like pouring gasoline — that spreads the fire to the rest of the room. "If your couch or bed gets caught on fire and you don't put the fire out within the first one to five minutes ... you are going to lose the house," Morgan said.
The goal of his NIST research is to reduce U.S. fire losses by making the foam burn with less intensity and preventing it from dripping flames, he said.
Morgan's work has been successful, said Rick Davis, leader of NIST's Flammability Reduction Group. He has demonstrated that certain attributes of the compounds reduce flammability, and many were synthesized at sufficiently high amounts "that they would likely be viable commercial candidates," Davis said.
Morgan said a workable compound could be transitioned to a chemical company to be sold as a flame retardant, provided it was cost-effective and allowed the foam to retain its necessary commercial properties.
Much of Morgan's other research involves performing small-scale testing on material samples provided by customers. He uses a fire safety engineering tool called a cone calorimeter to determine the sample's flammability. The typical cost of testing a sample starts at $600, he said.
Many plastics found in commodity goods are far more flammable than wood, which is to be expected considering that they are made from oil, Morgan said.
"They are easier to ignite, they burn with more intensity, they melt and flow and drip," he said. "So you have to change the plastic itself so that it burns in a different way."
When visited last week by the Dayton Daily News, Morgan was burning samples of what appeared to be rubber insulation for wiring cable provided by a university in Mexico that contracted his services.
"At the end of the day they get a full report telling them how the sample burned, how intense it burned, what gases it gave off, were there any physical effects that could be of concern — dripping, flowing, deformation — and what that means for what they described to me as their problem," he said.
Copyright 2012 Dayton Newspapers, Inc.