Researchers at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, are developing eco-friendly
intumescent and clay-based nanocoatings that may one day be used to provide flame resistance (FR)
to cotton garments and other textiles and polyurethane foam. The coatings, made using chitosan and
other renewable materials, have potential applications in such areas as childrenswear, military and
protective apparel, mattresses and home furnishings, and aircraft components.
Jaime C. Grunlan, Ph.D., an associate professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Mechanical
Engineering and director of the research, had been working on a layer-by-layer assembly technique
using a water-based solution to create clay-based nanobrick coatings for gas barrier films and got
the idea to use them in FR applications, first trying them on foam. With input from the National
Institute of Standards and Technology, which is partially funding the research, it was found that
the coated foam didn’t break down, and the weight gain from the coating was less than is typical
with other FR coatings. The coating penetrates the foam, significantly diminishing offgassing and
reducing the heat release rate by half. “The outer surface chars, but the inside is undamaged,”
Scanning electron micrographs show the intumescent coating on uncharred fabric (top) and
swollen protective foam created on the charred portion (bottom).
Meanwhile, Grunlan had been observing intumescent, foamy coatings on steel structural
supports. “The coating, which contains phosphorus and nitrogen polymers, swells through the foaming
process,” he explained. “The phosphorus attacks the nitrogen, which offgasses, creating bubbles
that provide a thermal shield around the object.”
He decided to try a similar coating on cotton. “It totally worked,” he said. Only the surface
in direct contact with flame was charred, and the swollen coating protected the fabric structure.
To make a biodegradable coating, Grunlan and his research team, including Galina Laufer,
Ph.D., replaced man-made polymers with chitosan to provide the nitrogen component and phytic acid
to provide the phosphorus. The water-based coating can be crosslinked to improve wash durability,
Grunlan said, pointing out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found that the FR
performance is unchanged after 10 washes conducted using an ASTM test method. “I’m very confident
we can show the same performance after 20 to 30 washes,” he added.
In current versions, the coating, though only 500 nanometers thick, does stiffen the fabric,
making a very soft cotton more like canvas, such as would be suitable for a firefighter’s jacket.
However, Grunlan said his team is working on recipes that would provide a softer hand and would be
suitable for children’s sleepwear or other clothing.
Grunlan also has applied the coating to nylon/cotton FR and polyester fabrics. “The coating
will prevent melt dripping, and a little intrinsic FR fiber in the fabric dramatically reduces the
number of coating layers needed,” he said, noting that the coating will enhance a fabric’s own FR
Left: In a vertical flame test, the coated cotton fabric chars only where the flame touches
CONTACTS: For more information about the antiflammable nanocoating research at Texas A&M,
contact Jaime C. Grunlan +979-845-3027; email@example.com.