Sunday, March 21, 2010


Many marvels of engineering have been around a problem that only exists in oxygen-type environments that we require: Fire. Combustion reactions are high-energy chemistry resulting in materials combining with an "oxidant," the most obvious one being oxygen itself. Since we can't just remove all the oxygen from our atmosphere (because we'd certainly die), we instead concentrate on making the things around us less likely to burst into flames.
The quest for fireproof technology almost certainly began with the observation that stone and metal did not catch fire, even when held in direct contact with flame. This worked well for buildings, one big reason why banks today are made largely of stones like granite and marble. It provides a sense of permanence. This worked less well for toys and clothing. I don't want to wear metal overalls. Not comfortable.
There have been some options abandoned for other reasons. Asbestos, for instance, is a miracle for fireproofing. It's as flexible as cloth, but as fireproof as stone. So it was installed in all kinds of things, but proved a problem when it was time to remove it: if it breaks even slightly, it breaks into little fibers that rip apart your lungs like hell. Also, it greatly increases your risk for lung cancer. Asbestos is no longer allowed in construction in any country I can name. (Some countries don't regulate construction at all, so I suppose you could build with asbestos there.)
Most of the advances lately have been through organic chemistry. Complex molecules with carbon that don't combine well with oxygen are layered over anything that could catch fire (cotton, polyester, wood, etc) thereby making it impossible for fire to reach the inflammable interior. This is important when the "interior" is your young child's cotton pajamas. While you should keep young children away from fire generally, when one does break out, you want to give your child as much protection as possible.
Largely, buildings aren't as inflammable as they used to be. In larger cities, metal construction is largely replacing wood, carpets and hardwood floors are increasingly coated with fireproof organic chemicals, and electrical codes are increasingly requiring electrical setups that are less likely to burst into flame, and easier to extinguish when they do.
However, this is no reason to be complacent. It would be wise for everyone to have a fire extinguisher on hand, to not do patently stupid things with fire (like smoking while in bed or asleep), and to be ready to evacuate in the event of a fire. Most of the advances have made fire less likely, but not impossible. "Fire resistant" clothing that is exposed to direct flame won't laugh it off indefinitely, but will hold off for a while before catching fire. Clothing that does catch fire should be immediately removed.
I also caution people to value lives before property. Insurance can buy you a new home. It cannot recover your life if you lose it.

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