What sort of material could withstand high temperatures without burning or giving off toxic fumes? We take a look back in time to find out...
This torch here is producing a temperature of 1200 degrees Celsius. Now try cooking an ordinary egg like that and, in a very few seconds, the results would be quite an explosion. But I’m going to leave this torch here, blowing on this egg for a couple of minutes before we crack it open and it ought to survive the inferno because it’s coated with a remarkable new plastic...
Connie - That was the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World programme, on TV, back in 1990. And that ‘remarkable new plastic’ being demonstrated live, was known as Starlite. This coating, allegedly, could withstand intense heat; and it didn’t catch fire and it didn’t release toxins, making it a very attractive industrial proposition. In fact, the egg coated with it survived a full five minutes under the blowtorch flame…
So, how’s it doing? Well it hasn’t broken up at all and you can see on the front here it’s glowing red hot. But just watch this, if I turn the flame off (and remember that it was producing 1200 degrees Celsius), and I take that charred bit and I put it flat in the palm of my hand, it only just feels warm. And if I then crack it open, what’s more the egg hasn’t even begun to start cooking...
Chris - Perhaps just as remarkable as Starlite’s properties was the story behind it - it was created in the 1980s by former hairdresser Maurice Ward. Ward’s inspiration for such an invention followed an aircraft fire in which 55 people died through exposure to toxic fumes released inside the cabin. So, could he create a plastic which couldn’t catch fire?
He set about concocting different formulations using the food mixer at home. He eventually stumbled on a few recipes which passed formal tests at the chemical company ICI. But it wasn’t until his appearance on Tomorrow’s World that things really started to heat up.
Connie - A series of tests by various government agencies was begun. They found Starlite to have little problem resisting nuclear blasts of ten thousand degrees Celsius and the force of 75 Hiroshimas. It was virtually unscathed when subjected to an intense laser beam. The scientific community was baffled. It wasn’t clear how Starlite could do what no other material had done before. But what was clear, was its potential.
Chris - Coating something in a thin layer of Starlite could make it resistant to fire and radiation, while also providing remarkable thermal insulation. Rumoured bidders such as NASA and Boeing were eager to get their hands on a sample, but Ward had other ideas. He refused to let Starlite out of his sight, and he kept its recipe a closely guarded secret. All he would reveal was that it was made up of 21 organic polymers and co-polymers, and small quantities of ceramics. The true secret was apparently only held by Ward and some close family members.
No. We don’t supply you the formulation. If we give the world the formulation - that’s exit us!
All we’re saying really is that I’m protecting my material… and you ain't gonna pinch it!
Chris - Now before he would give any company a licence to the material, Ward required them to sign an agreement promising not to reverse engineer it. Dozens of corporations never made it past the negotiations stage, and enthusiasm for Starlite petered out.
So what was the mystery behind the substance? Well some say Ward was being greedy and selfish, others say he didn’t want it to fall into the hands of defense companies. Or was it just a big hoax? Unfortunately, we’re never going to know the answer because Ward passed away in 2011, and he took the secret of Starlite with him - it’s never come to light.