Fire-resistant fabrics provide supersonic protection

Atlanta, GA--Andrew Green, Royal Air Force tornado pilot squadron leader, had a supersonic day last October. He broke the world land speed record, set in 1984, in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, driving 763 mph in his 54-ft Thrust SSC car. The previous record was 633.468 mph.

The extremely hot temperatures of the desert, coupled with the car's speed, created the potential for fire. As a consequence, Green himself, the car's interior, and the fire marshals who stood guard over this venture required protection. It came in the form of Panotex fire-resistant fabrics from Lantor Universal Carbon Fiber's (Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, England) technical textiles division. The fabrics are based on the company's carbon fiber technology.

Panotex fabrics are made of an oxidized fiber which is 60% carbon. The fiber is spun into yarn and woven into fabric. The fabric can also be cooked at 1,000C and turned into carbon fiber, which is approximately 95% carbon, according to Peter Cole, general manager for Lantor Universal.

Cole says that his company's fabrics are created by combining diverse fibers with different properties. "It's often by blending more than one fiber together and combining their properties that you finish up with a fabric that performs better than if it were made from any individual fiber," he says.

The fabrics are also used in a variety of applications where high protection is needed, Cole adds, including military jackets, fire fighting equipment, and covers for bulletproof vests.

"We've pre-burned the Panotex fabric," Cole says. "If you put a blowtorch against it, it will glow red, but there is no afterburn."

However, the fabric's exact level of protection depends on its weight. Panotex P180, used in Green's balaclava, gloves, and underwear, weighs just 200 gm per sq m. P211, which is used in his outer safety suit, is heavier for more protection at 260 gm per sq m. The outer suit was also treated with a liquid repellent that does not allow volatile liquids to be absorbed for added protection. The fire marshals wore the heaviest fabric of all, Panotex P15, which weighs in at 430 gm per sq m, Cole says.

The challenge in developing fabrics, Cole says, is that "people want fabric to do everything, such as fire and abrasion resistance, but be at the same time lightweight."

However, Andrew Green didn't seem to care about how the fabric would protect him in the event of a crash. "He was more concerned about what he would look like in the suit," Cole laughs.

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