Plastic That Can Withstand A Nuclear Blast?

Maurice Ward pulls aside a red suspender and reaches into his shirt pocket. Out comes a thin, cream-colored rectangle about the size of a bathroom tile. Before handing it to a visitor, he hesitates, aware that this nondescript plastic may represent a breakthrough in materials science that rivals John Wesley Hyatt's invention of plastic in 1869. "This is only to look at," he cautions, "not to walk away with."

Ward's brainchild, which he calls Starlite, is waxy to the touch and as stiff as rubber sheeting. This piece is covered with marks, and Ward points to a faint discoloration at the center. "That one's from Foulness," he says, referring to 1990 tests at Britain's answer to Los Alamos National Laboratory. Scientists at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Foulness, 50 miles east of London, bombarded the tile with lasers that simulate the heat of a nuclear explosion.

TOUGH AS STEEL. In the most severe test, the plastic was zapped for two minutes-plus by laser beams packing sufficient energy to produce spot temperatures of 10,000C. Yet Starlite emerged essentially unscathed. A Foulness scientist says he is stumped for why, despite photos showing that a thin layer of ionized gas formed on the surface and seemed to insulate the plastic. Nothing should slough off that much energy, adds Rustum Roy, a professor of materials science at Pennsylvania State University. The sturdiest metals vaporize above 2,000C, and pure carbon goes poof at 3,500C. "This stuff sounds like it's breaking the laws of physics," Roy said when told of Starlite by BUSINESS WEEK.

That was the universal reaction when Ward, a hairdresser turned recycler of plastics, claimed in 1989 that he had concocted a plastic that was barely singed by the 2,700C flame of a welder's acetylene torch. Snickers turned to amazement when a major British industrial lab couldn't touch Starlite even with a plasma torch, which is hotter and easily cuts through 18 inches of steel. One researcher, who asks not to be named, laid a 1 8-inch-thick sample of Starlite on a 1-inch-thick slab of aluminum. The plasma torch sliced the aluminum "like a hot knife through butter," he recalls--but it stopped when it hit the plastic.

Then, there was the scientist at Imperial Chemical Industries PLC who placed some Starlite in a small laboratory furnace designed to measure precisely how much smoke and energy a material releases during combustion. But this plastic wouldn't burn. Penn State's Roy, after checking with his research contacts in Britain's defense community, is impressed, too. "It's not hokum,"

he says. "Ward has found something."

Exactly what is a secret known only to Ward and a few family members. But Vladimir Hlavacek, professor of chemical engineering at the State University of New York at Buffalo, speculates that Starlite contains "a lot of silicon carbide," which is an excellent heat conductor. It's conceivable, he adds, that a backyard experimenter could, through trial and error, hit upon an important discovery by combining various such nonpolymeric materials with existing plastics and flame-retarding chemicals.

LIFESAVER? Needless to say, defense officials are intrigued. Starlite seems to promise coatings that could protect spy satellites from laser weapons--or shields on tanks that could fend off heat from a fuclear blast. Britain's Defense Ministry is now running tests at Cambridge University and the Royal Signals & Radar Establishment in Malvern to gauge Starlite's suitability as a coating for ballistic missiles to prevent overheating during reentry into the atmosphere. In one July test, it took just nine seconds to heat a warhead to 900C. But a paper-thin skin of Starlite halted the temperature rise at 40C.

In addition to being virtually fireproof, then, Starlite may be a superb thermal insulator. James P. Smigie, marketing manager for high-performance polymers at Mitsui Toatsu Chemicals Inc. in New York, recalls a demonstration three years ago in which a Starlite tile was blasted with a blowtorch for five minutes--while the other side stayed cool enough to touch. Even under fire by the high-power lasers at Foulness, the temperature of the back side of the tile rose by less than 25C.

If these properties can be translated into commercial products, Starlite's payoffs could be huge. It could become revolutionary garb for firefighters. And Starlite upholstery and wall coverings would reduce the hazards of fire in homes, offices, and planes. "It's extraordinary stuff," says James A. Stempson, president of TransTechnology Electronics Inc., a Peoria manufacturer of electrical cables and connectors that hopes to manufacture Starlite.

UTTER SECRECY. So far, though, nobody but Ward has produced the material--because Ward drives an outlandish bargain. Not content with the usual inventor's royalty of a small percentage of sales, he insists that any company wanting to capitalize on his baby create a joint venture and cede a 51% ownership stake to him. But since he spurns requests for samples--to prevent his recipe from being divined by chemical analysis--it isn't known whether Starlite can be made commercially. Ward won't even file for a patent because that would require divulging the ingredients.

Researchers at several U.S. plastics suppliers are keeping a watchful eye on Starlite but decline to comment until they know more about the material. "That's where we've been for four years, and Maurice hasn't been able to get beyond that step," says Smigie of Mitsui Toatsu Chemicals. But a break in this logjam may be in the offing. Sir Ronald Mason, a former chief scientist at the Defense Ministry, who last year was retained by Ward as a marketing consultant, predicts a deal will be signed within a few months. TransTechnology's Stempson, for one, doesn't rule out a joint venture on Ward's terms.

Now a portly 61, Ward is a stereotypical garage-shop inventor. He began searching for a better flame-retardant plastic after he learned a decade ago that most deaths in airliner crash landings are caused by smoke from burning plastics in the cabin. He hit upon the first forerunner to Starlite in 1986 but continued to tinker with it until 1989. That's when he put a welder's torch to his latest recipe--a brew of 21 polymers, ceramics, and additives--and failed to produce any smoke, let alone a hole.

"I realized that I had a winner," he says.

Today, Ward spends much of his time receiving a steady stream of visitors, including defense officials from NATO countries and industrialists from as far away as Japan, at his modest house. So far, though, Ward has rejected their overtures. If he continues to stall, some experts believe that it's only a matter of time before other researchers hit upon Starlite's recipe--and leave Ward holding the bag.

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