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Episode 40: Fire Testing

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SwRI fire testing provides critical information to manufacturers and consumers, making our homes and our world safer. In SwRI burn labs, fire experts unleash walls of flames to test everything from electronics and sofas to batteries, gas tanks and much more. Through explosions and infernos, they are evaluating the performance of construction materials, textiles and products to find out if they pose a fire risk. They also evaluate fire safety systems to make sure they are up to standard and can properly extinguish flames. In this episode, we discuss their important work and find out what piece of furniture in all of our homes poses the biggest fire risk.

Listen now as SwRI Director of Fire Technology Dr. Matthew Blais discusses safe, controlled fire testing to evaluate products, materials and systems.

Visit Fire Testing to learn more.


Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for clarity.

Lisa Peña (LP): The heat is on, as we discuss SwRI's fire testing services. In burn labs, our experts crank up the flames for critical research. Products, materials, and structures are exposed to heavy smoke and fire and evaluated in real-time. How SwRI's fire testing makes our homes and our world safer, next, on this episode of Technology Today.


We live with technology, science, engineering and the results of innovative research every day. Now, let's understand it better. You're listening to the Technology Today podcast, presented by Southwest Research Institute. Transcripts and photos for this episode and all episodes are available at

Hello, and welcome to Technology Today. I'm Lisa Peña. SwRI fire testing services evaluate how a range of materials, products and systems hold up to flames. A highlight for me, not too long ago, was seeing our fire testing team in action in one of our burn labs. Fire and billowing smoke quickly filled up the test area. It was fast. But what also stood out to me was that it was a very safe and controlled process. These types of tests are carried out to gather critical fire safety information. SwRI director of fire technology, Dr. Matthew Blais, is here today to talk about our fire testing services. Thanks for joining us, Matt.

hydrogen-filled blimp on fire as part of Hindenburg fire creation for Discovery Channel

SwRI fire technology specialists conducted numerous experiments for a Discovery Channel program to solve the mysteries surrounding the Hindenburg disaster. Using a one-tenth scale model, engineers investigated theories about flame initiation and propagation in the 80-foot model airframe.

Dr. Matthew Blais (MB): Hi, Lisa. I'm glad to be here.

LP: So it was great to get that firsthand look at our fire test in progress, not too long ago. As I mentioned, fire testing at SwRI is a very safe, controlled process. I described some of my experience, but there's really much more to it. How is fire testing conducted at SwRI? And what special equipment and technology is used to carry out fire testing?

MB: Well, first, there's two basic types of fire tests, those that are done to standards, which are promulgated by agencies that control the permitting of construction, and the other is research and development, which we do quite a bit of. All of the tests we do are in laboratories that are designed, actually, to handle high-energy release very rapidly. So the construction of the laboratory is designed to withstand very extreme conditions.

But we're also able to measure the heat release, how big the fire is, how much smoke it produces from these very, very extreme fires, using various techniques, like oxygen consumption calorimetry. What that really is is measuring the concentrations of oxygen, reduction, the addition of carbon monoxide and the addition of carbon dioxide. And from that, we can actually calculate how much heat is released by a fire, in a fire situation. That allows us to do very big fires, up to 10 megawatts.

LP: I've seen those fires. I mean, they are big. You're not kidding about that. So what type of products, material, structures and systems are most commonly tested in our labs?

MB: We do from milligram-scale tests up to complete construction systems. So we'll look at a material type in small amounts, to find out what its heat content is or its propensity to burn. Then we'll look at entire assemblies, wall assemblies, floor assemblies or entire buildings, and see what the hazard is to a structure using that type of material in the construction.

So we'll do things like bomb calorimetry to look at a 10-gram sample. Or we'll do something like an ASTM E108, which we'll look at a roof design. Or we'll do an E119, which will look at everything from concrete block construction for walls all the way up to poured concrete or just drywall. So we do the full range of testing for the larger systems.

LP: And when it comes to smaller things, are you also testing textiles, maybe clothing, carpets, things we use every day?

white man in gray polo shirt standing in front of a poster than reads Fire Whirl for Field Destruction of Chemical Warfare Agents

Director of Fire Technology Dr. Matthew Blais oversees fire testing and safety in the SwRI burn labs.

MB: Yes, absolutely. We do a full range of tests for textiles, the UL 94 or any of the larger-scale tests for fabrics, to include things like coverings for couches, where we'll do the California TB 117 test, which looks at the propensity of a material to burn when it's in your house as a couch. Believe it or not, the couch in your home is probably the most risky item, as you saw in those tests that we did a couple of years ago. It has a tremendous amount of energy. And if it catches fire, there's a great possibility you won't escape the house.

LP: So that's a scary thought. Yeah, so we all have these huge items in our house that, if not properly tested, could be a hazard. And so that's what your team is there for, looking at these items and letting us know more about their safety. So with each test, what are you trying to learn? What type of information are you gathering?

MB: The first thing is how hard is something to ignite. How much energy does it require to get it to burn? And then if it does burn, because a lot of things don't, how much energy does it release over time and how hazardous that will be in a home or an industrial setting.

We look at everything from baby carriages to car seats to entire vehicles, gas tanks, wall construction. Anything you can think of that might be a hazard in fire, we look at. We even look at sprinkler systems and their ability to put out fires, whether or not it's big enough and powerful enough to stop a larger fire. We do just about everything you can think of related to fire. Not just to U.S. standards, but to the international standards, as well. So we do testing for countries all over the world.

LP: That's an interesting note there about the sprinkler systems. Because when I think of your fire testing services, I think of testing, as we talked about, materials and products to see how quickly they'll burn, but on the flip side of that is the safety of putting out fires. So that's the other side. So who is seeking out our fire testing services at SwRI?

MB: Anybody who wants to bring a new material to market or wants to build a large building. One of the big pushes in the last several years is to build medium-rise buildings, up to 15 stories in height, completely wood. No steel members in them, at all. And obviously, that's a scary process. If you're on the 15th floor and you're in a wood building, what happens if there's a fire in a lower-level compartment? Are you going to be trapped at the top? And will the building collapse quickly? Those are the kinds of things we'll look at in those types of construction.

But it's been a very, very big environmental push because what's better than carbon capture than wood, itself, because that's trapping CO2 out of the air. So everybody wants to go to these environmentally friendly buildings. And they have some other advantages, as well. For example, seismic, wood flexes. And concrete and steel don't flex as well. So buildings that are 15 stories high, built in an earthquake zone, may be better, seismically. So there's all these things going on in construction. And our job is to see if they're fire safe.

LP: So you just said your job is to make sure that they are fire safe, but is there a beyond that? Or is that pretty much the gist of, why is this type of information so valuable for clients?

MB: Well, really, it's about not building something that's going to get you sued. Companies want to make sure that what they're building is safe. And if they can comply with the construction codes and pass the fire test, they're more likely to get the designs that they're proposing accepted, making it easier to get them built. And then, obviously, it's a huge market impact.

So we look at all kinds of things, though, not just construction. We look at a lot of consumer electronics products. We have a couple of recent research projects where we've looked at large, flat-panel televisions and whether they'll spontaneously ignite from electrical shorts inside. Or if somebody puts an external ignition source or a candle adjacent to the television, whether that will cause a large fire. We look at a full range of consumer electronics, furniture. We look at just about everything that you come in contact with every day and whether or not it's a fire risk.

LP: Yeah. So I said, why is this type of information valuable for clients? But really, it's valuable for all of us consumers buying items for our homes. And as I said at the top, the fire testing is making not only our home safer, but our world safer. So really valuable information coming out of your burn labs. Any recently added services or new developments in fire testing that we could discuss today?

MB: There's a couple of things we're working on right now. Battery safety is a big part of that. We're going more and more to systems that require large battery storage. When these things fail, it's very exciting. They almost explode in fire. So it's really, really important that we design them in such a way that we can control the energy release, and that's a lot of what we've done. We've worked with all the major manufacturers of automobiles looking at their battery systems, as well as large batteries used for home storage. So we're working closely with other divisions that look at energy storage and try to come up with safe ways of doing that so that you don't end up burning your home down because you've got battery storage.

LP: It seems that there is not an industry that would not benefit from fire testing.

MB: We work with pretty much everybody. I think our most exciting tests to watch are called the jet fire test. They're a 30-megawatt fire, and it sounds like a roaring jet engine when it's fired. It's a big propane gas jet fire. But it's designed to test materials for offshore oil rigs, and you're looking at two things, critical infrastructure, the firefighting equipment, you don't want to lose that during that type of fire, obviously; and the other one is shelter in place where the crews not fighting the fire can go and get away from the fire and be safe. So we'll test those against extremely high-energy fires to find out how well they work.

LP: So the results of our fire testing gives us a glimpse of how safe a product or material is. But in the fire lab itself, in our burn lab, safety is a major priority. Obviously if you are starting these huge fires, you have to have those safety measures in place. So can you tell us a little bit about that? What safety measures are in place in our burn labs?

MB: Well, all my personnel are trained to deal with the environments they're working in. And we monitor both the atmosphere for toxic gases as well as the heat environment. So it's a function of planning for safety that's very important.

LP: So is there a, wondering if there is a particular product or equipment that is in common use that our listeners might be familiar with that has passed through SwRI for fire testing. Is that something you can disclose?

MB: Every gas tank on every vehicle made has passed through our laboratory, and we test them against extremely high flames. For example, we use pool fires that completely engulf the fuel tank, which is half full of fuel, and for a direct flame exposure of one minute. Then we bring dispersing bricks over the top of that so it's just a heat exposure, not flame for another couple of minutes. And at the end of that test, the tank can't have developed a leak and can't have a sustained fire. So all the stuff you see on TV and in the movies of a vehicle going off a cliff and erupting in flames, that doesn't happen. They just are very, very safe designs. But we test all of the fuel tanks for all -

LP: Really, every, that every gas tank of every car?

MB: Every design, yeah.

LP: We work every design, we work with every manufacturer on that? Wow. I didn't know that.

MB: Yeah, we're probably one of the, we actually probably are the largest fuel tank tester in the world.

LP: And that is an SwRI fun fact. Thank you, I didn't know that. So during the pandemic, your team adopted a new way of including your clients in the fire-testing process, because before, they would just go to your labs and hang out and watch the whole thing unfold. But with the pandemic came different needs. And so how did you include your clients in the fire testing process?

MB: Actually, my deputy came up with the best method. We got a series of tablets with cameras built into them so we could talk directly to clients during the testing, and then using the tablets over the internet, show them what was happening with their test as it's happening. So they can express interest in something that they wanted to specifically see so we could focus on that and they would see what was happening during the actual test. And it was extremely effective.

Some of our clients have continued to use that service instead of traveling because it's so much safer, so much cleaner, so much easier, and it saves them money, no travel expenses. And they can see whatever they want to as part of the test. The setup before as well as the actual test execution.

LP: So with that, you did not skip a beat and fire testing went virtual just like everything else in the world seems to have at this point. And so that's a service that's going to stick around, then?

MB: Yeah, I would say the only thing not virtual about the actual test execution, we've got to be here to burn things. We can't burn them at home. So they won't let us do that, that's right.

LP: No way to do that from home. But I'm sure that's been much appreciated. Have there been any other pandemic-related changes in your processes?

MB: Right now, the biggest pandemic effect is delay in shipping.

LP: Ah, yes.

MB: Getting materials here to test, it's brutal. It is definitely affecting our scheduling. Because we'll have expected ship dates and arrival dates and it's just not happening the way we expect, which really messes with our schedule pretty big, and we're adapting to that continuously.

LP: Yeah. No doubt that could affect, that's affecting all of us in one way or another.

MB: The other thing would be Omicron. We just had a lot of people out all at one time, because it was so contagious. But they're all back they're all feeling fine. So it's not a terrible thing, but it did affect our schedule.

LP: So great, everyone's back and feeling better. And hopefully, once this wave passes, we'll be right back to where we started.

MB: Yeah, hopefully.

LP: Yeah. So wanted to go to the next question, and I know, how many years have you been doing this-

MB: 15.

LP: 15 years. So over the last 15 years, what have been some of your most memorable findings as a result of your testing processes?

MB: I don't know if you ever saw the work we did on the recreation of the Hindenburg. Did you ever see that?

LP: I have not. We'll have to add that to the web page if we have a picture.

MB: The Discovery Channel hired us to build models and recreate the burn pattern of the Hindenburg to try and actually determine what caused the accident. So we did a series of lab-scale tests, smaller tests looking at various theories. And then we did three full-scale tests looking at different initiations, and we were able to actually recreate the crash pattern identical just exactly like in the 1938 "Oh the humanity" filmstrip. That one. So we actually got to recreate it very, very precisely, and we figured out what caused it.

LP: Wow. So what was the purpose, why did they want to know all these years later? What were they looking for?

MB: Well, it was part of a thing they call the Curiosity series, and it was really just about the Hindenburg. You tie that with the fact that hydrogen is coming back strong as an industry for doing all kinds of things. The supplies of helium worldwide, which is a much safer gas to handle, are dwindling. So as a result, they're looking at lift capabilities using hydrogen. And that's, it's going to happen. As a matter of fact, we've been hired by a couple of research firms looking at hydrogen aerostats, which are balloon systems with lift, that use hydrogen to lift. And it has slightly more lift than helium does.

LP: So are you finding some of your work with the Hindenburg project coming in handy with current hydrogen-related work?

MB: They were both tied together. We did some hydrogen work for NIST early on looking at hydrogen powered vehicles like cars and garages and what would happen if they leaked hydrogen and what would be the impact on the house. And depending upon the way we did it and the paper that we wrote on it, we were able to completely destroy the house that stored the vehicle as well as the four houses around it. So hydrogen storage in a garage, if not done properly, can be pretty bad.

LP: Pretty catastrophic. So it sounds-

MB: -on campus.


MB: That was my first meeting with Walt Downing.

LP: Walt is in our executive management for our listeners. So you had a, so you built these rooms and then essentially destroyed them for the fire test?

MB: We actually built several concrete block garages with floating roofs. And we released controlled amounts of hydrogen into the room and then ignited it. And we did it about 32 times and hooked up to 28% hydrogen in the room. And we got to 28% hydrogen, the room rapidly disassembled, let's put it that way. The roof was launched over 200 feet in the air. And there are a whole bunch of people on the ball field up above where the explosives range is. And all the senior management come rushing down to see if we're all OK. But we were in an armored vehicle and we were fine. It was actually a lot of fun.

LP: So yeah, this is your job. You just blow things up.

MB: Yeah. I have definitely one of the better jobs, yeah.

LP: It is definitely a sight to see.

MB: We have too much fun doing it, but we're also extremely careful, and that's why people come to us. We don't hurt people in these processes. We take the precautions, we're safe and we gather the information that we're looking for.

LP: Yeah, you get some great information. Well, you certainly answered that question. I would say those are some memorable findings there.

MB: Yeah.

LP: So I have to ask, how does your fire safety knowledge spill over into your everyday life? I mean, do you only stay in certain hotels with certain mattresses? You prefer certain types of clothing? I would imagine that your day-to-day work informs some of your life decisions.

MB: Well, I would say that the most important one would be, like I said, the couch that you buy. Get a really good leather couch. Leather is inherently fire-resistant.

LP: Oh, we have one. Good to know.

MB: And the other thing is to look at the labels on things. There's a big campaign against fire retardants in the United States because some of the chemicals are slightly hazardous. But the benefits they add are incredible. We've shown that under the same fire conditions, some things won't burn at all if there are fire-retardant. Whereas the non-fire-retardant, those are the scary ones that you see, that erupt into flames very quickly and you're not likely to escape. And fire deaths are a large source of death in the United States. Fire deaths among the elderly are higher than any other group except for infants. So it really does affect our older populations and their ability to escape a building. Fire safety is a very rewarding area as far as research is concerned, because you're actually protecting people, and that's the goal.

LP: Yeah, so what are we looking for on these tags? For just that they have been treated with a fire retardant?

MB: Or tested to certain standards. That's really what you're looking for. You want to make sure they meet fire standards. That's the most important part. UL 94 is a common test for consumer electronics. You want a UL 94 V1 rating if you can get it, and that will be on the label. These are the kinds of things you want to look. And if you want to know more about it, there is lots and lots of publications that cover fire testing, and you can always call us, that's what we're here for.

LP: So do you walk into a restaurant or store and see issues, or maybe on the flip side of that, you see that they're doing something really well? Do these things just jump out at you when you walk into a place?

MB: Absolutely. Restaurants, you'll see that they're all sprinkler. That's a really important thing. The right sprinkler system in there to suppress any fire. And the kitchen, obviously, the biggest source of fire in a restaurant. Nightclubs, anytime you go out in the evening, don't go into a place that's really shoddy. If it doesn't have good fire protection, it's a real fire risk. So you've got to be aware of what's around you and what precautions are being taken.

LP: Yeah. So you might walk into a place and just look around to look at the sprinkler system, and is that something you do?

MB: It's almost second nature.

LP: Yeah, I'm sure. With the work you do. OK, so that was those are some great tips, great advice. I did want to talk about your background a little bit. So you are a trained chemist. And can you tell us a little bit about how your background in chemistry ties into your fire testing career?

MB: Well, I have my doctorate in organic chemistry, so most of the things that are around you that do burn are organic molecules. And specifically, I've looked at a lot of the issues related with the toxicity of smoke generated from the burning of organic materials. And as a result, I'm one of the leading experts in toxic smoke generation. So it's really fit in very, very well. Add to that with the knowledge of organic fire retardants and how they work, chemistry ties in extremely well with fire. It's just natural. Plus, my expertise was really generated in the military where I was an explosives expert. So I'm used to very fast fires, we'll say.

LP: So our fire testing labs are in good hands with you. You have a lot of background and experience with dealing with all kinds of explosives, as you mentioned.

MB: That, and the safety aspects of highly hazardous operations. That really is a big part of what I bring to the pictures. I know how to be safe in these environments.

LP: Yeah. So what do you enjoy about this area of research? You touched on it a little bit, but tell us a little bit more about what you like about your area of research.

MB: Honestly, my favorite thing is the young engineers I work with and teaching them how to be safe in these environments. So you can do just about anything that you dream up and be safe about it and not get hurt. That and the ability to, at the Institute, patent ideas and come up with new things. A lot of my work is related to the military and coming up with ways of dealing with chemical weapon IEDs on the battlefield, and I have two patents in that area and one pending. So that just a lot of fun, that work. And that's directly beneficial for soldiers, which that's good for me. I'm a former soldier, I kind of feel good about that.

LP: Yeah. I mean, there really is a lot to feel good about in what you're doing. And as you mentioned, just the overall safety aspect, the protection just for everyday people. Really benefiting from your work.

MB: That's really the mission of the institute if you think about it. We try to better society.

LP: Yeah.

MB: That's the goal.

LP: Research and development for humanity, and that is exactly what you're doing. So what would you like our listeners to remember about SwRI's fire testing services? What is the big takeaway today?

MB: That everything you touch, everything that's sold has probably been through a fire test. And that fire testing is critical to ensure that lots of people aren't killed in large fires, especially in apartment complexes, which are high-density occupancy. And the fires that we do see that result in large deaths are generally in older buildings that don't have adequate protection. So keep an eye on your surroundings. Make sure that you're living in an area where you do have those protections, because if you value your families, you want to make sure they're safe.

LP: All right. Great advice, I mean, that we can really apply starting today. So what a great discussion today. Really important insight on fire safety. Thank you so much for joining us, Matt.

MB: My pleasure, Lisa. I hope you have a great day.

And thank you to our listeners for learning along with us today. You can hear all of our Technology Today episodes and see photos and complete transcripts at Remember to share our podcast and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.

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Ian McKinney and Bryan Ortiz are the podcast audio engineers and editors. I am producer and host, Lisa Peña.

Thanks for listening.


As one of the world’s largest fire research organizations, we have extensive capabilities and expertise to customize fire tests for a wide range of systems and equipment. Our staff is well versed in a wide range of fire testing using methodologies and pulling from other fields of expertise to address research and client testing needs.