Wool is less susceptible to burning than synthetic fibers. This makes it an ideal fabric for uniforms worn by U.S. troops, firefighters and others whose occupations expose them to fire.
Agricultural Research Service (ARS) chemist Jeanette M. Cardamone has discovered and patented a heat-resistant material that can be incorporated into wool and other fabrics to match the flame resistance of commercial firefighters' uniforms.
The material was developed at the request of the U.S. military—one of the largest markets for domestic wool—to offer U.S. troops protection against fire-related injuries. Burning wool produces a soft ash that won't lodge in open wounds, unlike synthetic materials, which can bead and drip into a wound.
In an earlier project, Cardamone worked with colleagues at the ARS Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, Pa., to develop "biopolished" wool that is both machine-washable and itch-free.
Nine companies have expressed an interest in obtaining a license on the biopolished wool technology, and the ARS Office of Technology Transfer has issued one license for it. The biopolished wool already has many desirable properties, so it's a natural choice for developing a fabric with improved flame retardancy.
Working with visiting scientist Anand Kanchagar, Cardamone improved the flame retardancy of the biopolished wool by treating it with a heat-resistant polymer that is stable, easy to process and highly tolerant of extreme temperatures. Early tests have shown that the burning behavior of the polymer-treated ARS wool compares to a 50/50 blend of wool with Nomex, the fabric currently used in protective firefighting gear.
The scientists are experimenting with different methods to further enhance the wool's heat-resistant and flame-retardant properties. Cardamone and her colleagues are seeking an industrial collaborator to work with on applying the treatment to fabrics for laundering durability.
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