Interview with a CED member – Science behind fire retardants

mayra melian rodriguezMayra Melián Rodriguez is a member of the highly qualified professionals that make up the Society of Spanish researchers in Denmark. Original from the Canary Islands, she arrived to Denmark back in 2013. She came from Madrid where she graduated as a Master in Energy and Fuels at the Autonomous University of Madrid. This master allowed her to work on highly-efficient catalyzers for energy conversion at CSIC and IBERCAT. In Denmark she completed a PhD at DTU and continued as a postdoctoral researcher in the same university, where she developed highly efficient catalyzers for conversion of hydrogen. Recently she continued with her science career as the head of R&D in a small Danish company called Burnblock, which develops fire retardants products and solutions for several applications. But what are these kind of materials that can prevent fire from propagating? Mayra explains to us her story in this short article

CED: What kind of Materials have fire retardant capacity?

MMR: There are several substances added to burning materials to avoid large fires or diminish their propagation and give some escape time. These are called fire retardant. There are several chemical compounds with different properties and structures that act as fire retardant. The most commonly used are inorganic compounds, like halogenated compounds, phosphorus, antimony trioxide and nitrogen, and intumescent materials amongst others. It is worth mentioning that most of these compounds are toxic and are registered in the REACH list. One of the main focus of my work is to find new ways towards the production of fire retardants with good properties. But at the same time that are more natural, less toxic and less harmful for our health. This is the vision of Burnblock and we are very proud of it.

What is the scientific base of fire retardant properties?

Solid materials (fuels) are decomposed by the action of heat (pyrolysis), releasing flammable gases. These gases burn with oxygen from the air. Thus, all fire needs three indispensable elements to initiate; Fuel, heat, and oxygen (oxidant). These elements define the “fire triangle”.


Fire retardants can act on one of these three elements producing different effects:

  1. Thermal effect: Heat reduction
  2. Dilution effect on gases: Releasing non-flammable gases like water vapor, ammonia, carbon dioxide dispersing fuel gases and producing non-flammable mixtures
  3. Chemical effect: In wood, fire retardants influence pyrolytic reactions decreasing thermal decomposition. Cellulose decomposition is followed by formation of a coal layer and water instead of flammable gas formation

What is the future of this industry and its applications?

Nowadays institutions and people are more aware of how important is to take care and make a reasonable use of natural resources. Currently there is a new trend in how to manufacture wood. In fact the only neutral carbon material. It is so because every cubic meter of wood used for construction we spare 0.8 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. To protect wood from possible fires it is necessary to use fire retardants. For companies such as Burnblock, this represents a growing market. Nevertheless, fire retardants are not exclusively used in wood but also in textile materials, plastic, polymers that represent a wide range of applications. Let’s not forget about natural fires in forests which represent a threat to living organisms dependent on them. There is a need to develop more efficient and environmentally friendly fire retardants.

What motivated you to move to the industry after your postdoc?

During my years in academia I loved research and study a topic in depth. However I felt I needed something different. Before starting my PhD I worked in the chemical industry where research focused on applying directly and timely the knowledge acquired during years in order to solve present challenges. This was exactly what I was looking for, a more dynamic approach and applied side of science. Bringing my knowledge to a different scale, namely, towards a production scale but at the same time combining the economic factors that are so important for the industry.

What skills did a PhD in Denmark provide you with?

Besides improving my knowledge and scientific skills it also allowed me to adapt to a new country, new culture and a labor market quite different from the one I was used to back in Spain.

During my PhD I had the opportunity to carry out a research stay in China, which revealed to me a new culture and working environment. I also attended several conferences and got to know many people working in different science fields with which I currently collaborate and have very good relationship. These were really good years both at professional and personal level.

What would be your advice to our members or future members that are in the beginning of their PhDs or finishing their master thesis?

Value primarily what does a PhD and moving abroad means. Be Denmark or any other country, weight up the pros and cons. Secondly develop some patience because it is a long process, sometimes frustrating. Finally, if willing to overcome the previously-mentioned challenges, do not think more about it. From the professional and academic point of view, a PhD in Denmark is priceless. Your career opportunities are infinite and you are the only one who put the boundaries.

The Society of Spanish researchers in Denmark is very grateful to you for dedicating a few minutes to sharing your story with our members. Our communications about CED members have the aim to give more visibility to your activities and serve as inspiration for career development in sciences.

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