Futurologist: New materials may lead to improved fire safety

The technological development of new materials, components and systems in the construction […]

Fire Security
May 2015


The technological development of new materials, components and systems in the construction sector will likely make the future more fireproof.  Such is the outlook of futurologist Klaus Mogensen of the Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies.

The development of materials will lead to new building components and construction principles, says futurologist Klaus Mogensen, who has conducted several studies in the area.

But what impact will this development have on fire safety? According to Mogensen, this is a difficult question to answer, but most signs indicate that the technological development of new materials will make the world more fireproof in the future.

– Let me give you an example: The future will bring window panes that will make interiors darker or lighter either upon direct sunlight or at the turn of a knob. This will obviate the need for curtains and thereby reduce the risk of fire, because home fires can begin with the curtains catching fire, says Mogensen, whose research results are included in a report entitled ‘Future Materials and Fire Safety’, which was conducted by the Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies and commissioned by DBI.

Another example, however, may point to an opposite trend. The future will bring more robots that perform everyday tasks such as vacuuming and babysitting.

– In general, electronic equipment with rechargeable batteries, such as those used in a robotic vacuum cleaner, can be seen to increase the risk of fire, regardless of how well the appliance is designed. And there’s no doubt that we will continue to see many more electronic appliances in our homes and offices. What will it mean for fire safety if the pictures and posters we hang on our walls are replaced by integrated screens? Or what effects will there be if books and newspapers disappear because more and more people read content on their tablets and smartphones?, Mogensen ponders.

Only a mild interest in safety
Mogensen is convinced that new technological possibilities are what drive the development of new materials and components in the construction sector – and not the wish for greater fire safety, which is a lower overall priority.

In fact, most people who live and work in Danish buildings are not very interested at all in fire safety, the futurologist points out. A majority of them simply assume that their buildings are safe – and that surely a fire will never break out in their homes or businesses.

– It’s just like with cars. Fuel consumption, design, top speed and extra gadgets mean much more. Safety comes in relatively far down on the list, says Mogensen, who calls this means of prioritisation a ‘human characteristic’, because we generally don’t wish to worry too much.

That is why so many cyclists ride around without helmets, even though everyone knows that a helmet would increase one’s personal safety.

Uncertainty about new materials
Two exciting technological trends in the area of new materials are tailored composite materials that are both lightweight and durable, and the use of phase-alternating materials in walls and other constructions that can reduce a building’s energy consumption.

However, it is difficult to say what actual significance these trends will have for fire safety. The new materials will typically be flammable to a certain degree, unlike concrete, brick and other materials commonly used today. That said, wood is also flammable, and yet we have learned to use the material effectively in terms of fire safety, such as by treating it with fire-retardant impregnation.

– The question is whether the existing testing methods and regulations for fire safety work optimally when it comes to fundamentally different materials, such as composites, carbon nanotubes or nanocrystalline cellulose, Mogensen wonders aloud.

– It’s also necessary to consider the effect of the increasing number of active systems we have in our buildings. Temperature-controlled oven light windows or window panes can reduce the need for mechanical ventilation and cooling, and this, in turn, will bring down the risk of fire. But what is the impact of having such solutions if a fire actually breaks out? What is the impact of having more intelligent types of sprinkler and alarm systems? Can nanomaterials generate poisonous gases? What is the risk posed by the many chargers we have for our electronic equipment? Should we really have a low-voltage power supply in all buildings, instead of the current 230-volt standard? I don’t think we’re thinking enough about fire safety in relation to new technology and new materials, responds Mogensen to his list of questions.

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