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Published: November 2011
The economic crisis led to some dramatic losses in the flame retardants business but the industry is recovering. This market is expected to grow at an average annual rate of almost 3% per year on a volume basis during 2010–2015.
The flammability of a combustible material can nearly always be adequately retarded by adding flame retardant chemicals in sufficient amounts. The challenge, however, is to optimize the use of flame retardant chemicals to achieve a cost-effective flame retardant end-use product without seriously compromising the product's desired physical properties.
Stricter fire safety standards, new regulations, voluntary commitments from industry, and numerous eco-labels have been introduced in the past few years. These will further contribute to greater demand for flame retardants and will place new demands on the flame retardants themselves. Changing standards for flame retardancy and fire safety, and changes in applications for specific types of plastics are opening new opportunities. There are new business opportunities for new polymer-based and synergistically acting flame retardant systems, especially in the electrical and electronics sector. The flame retardants market is also affected by developments in construction materials. For example, rising global demand for optical fibers and their increasing use in buildings will augment the need for flame retardants.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of flame retardants:
The Chinese market has developed rapidly; flame retardants such as organophosphorus compounds and ATH have shown high growth in demand.
The plastics/resins industry is the largest consumer of flame retardants sold to basic resin manufacturers, custom compounders or plastics fabricators. Smaller volumes of flame retardants are also sold to the textile, adhesives, elastomer, paint and paper industries.
There has been little innovation/development in flame retardants. Most of the innovations have dealt with flame-retarded materials. Examples include foam materials with improved flame retardants and heat resistance, new grades of flame retardant engineering plastics, self-cross-linking copolymer dispersions for permanent flame retardant textiles, and new technologies for incorporating flame retardants into reactive polyurethane blends and parts. There is great interest in the development of a nonsoluble flame retardant finish for synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon and polypropylene that does not disturb the desirable physical characteristics of the fibers (modification of the polymer for flame retardancy can change the desired characteristics of the fibers).
Markets for flame retardants have been developed because of governmental regulatory action; loss of life and property because of fire has resulted in public pressure to provide safer materials. Insurance companies have also exerted pressure by increasing payment rates in unprotected environments. There is still pressure for environmentally safe products with lower levels of smoke and with reduced toxicity from combustion products. Important areas for flame-retarded products are
- Electrical and electronic applications (cabinets and housings for television sets as well as components such as connectors, printed circuit boards, and wire and cable insulation).
- Construction materials (thermal insulating materials [foams], mattresses, furniture cushioning, chip boards, laminates, paints).
- Transportation components (polymer parts of airplanes, trains, subways, buses), which must meet flammability standards. Flame retardants are especially important in seating materials.
- Fabrics and apparel; carpets and draperies as well as children's sleepwear are finished with flame retardant chemicals.
- Other applications—adhesives, paper and pulp products, upholstery.
The most important organic flame retardants are halogenated (brominated or chlorinated) compounds and phosphate esters. The major inorganic products are aluminum hydroxide (alumina trihydrate), antimony oxides and borates. Other inorganic compounds used as flame retardants include molybdenum compounds, magnesium hydroxide, ammonium polyphosphate and red phosphorus. Some of these inorganic compounds function as synergists rather than directly as flame retardants, enhancing the flame retardant effectiveness. Synergists are not usually used alone unless the chemical nature of the polymer (e.g., contains a halogen) provides some innate flame retardancy.