Olex began production trials with the exposed materials in 2002 following extensive research and development that began in 1997 and included exhaustive circuit integrity tests and trial samples of single and multi-core cables manufactured by Olex’s plants at Tottenham and Lilydale in Victoria.

The CRC-P project team included researchers from the CSIRO, RMIT University, Monash University, University of NSW and the Department of Defence, Science and Technology.

Olex has the sole license for use of this technology in cable applications and the CRC-P has established a company, Ceram Polymerik Pty Ltd, to commercialise non-cable applications. 

According to Warwick Freeland, Deputy CEO of the CRC-P, the global market for passive fire protection products is around $8 billion, and strong interest has already been received from companies in Australia, the US and the UK.

“An attribute of the fire performance material is that it can replace complex assemblies, required to meet functional and fire requirements, with a single moulded material,” Freeland said.

“Applications such as a window seals, duct protection and building joints can be targeted.”

The use of CeramifiableTM polymers in the manufacture of fire performance cables heralds a new era in cable technology, according to Olex’s Marketing Manager, Tony Kiernan. 

“This Australian technology provides for the first time a cost-effective means of providing circuit integrity for applications previously not considered viable with conventional fire performance cables,” he said.

“The plastic is targeted to the ‘passive’ fire protection industry – and will enhance the fire resistance in buildings and structures, by creating barriers to the passage of fire, heat and smoke.

"The patented polymer technology, unlike conventional polymers which break down in fire, transforms into a protective ceramic barrier ensuring continued supply of essential services throughout an emergency.

“The material behaves like a plastic with conventional properties in its processed form – being flexible and electrically insulative. It can be moulded, extruded or foamed.

"But when it is burnt, it goes through a process where it maintains its structural integrity – which is its major advantage and point of difference over mainstream polymers – which reach a certain temperature and then fall apart.” 

Kiernan says the plastic turns into a ceramic when exposed to fire where the temperatures can range up to about 1000 degrees. The insulative ceramic layer formed on the electrically conductive wires is then hard, rigid and withstands water from fire hoses. The electrical wires within can therefore maintain their electrical performance.

The alternative to the new material is the use of mica tape wound around wires, which is labour intensive, less flexible and expensive.

Research projects

Another important area of research at the CRC-P is in the area of modified PET (polyethylene terephthalate) – to improve impact and melt strength. Visy Industries in Australia has licensed the technology – which is being moulded into food trays for use in Australian supermarkets.

According to Freeland, PET is used extensively for drink bottles, and while it has the benefits of being cheap and clear it also has processing limitations, such as low melt strength, which limit its applications. The CRC-P technology overcomes these limitations.

Other projects in research and development include:

• Fast switching photochromic dyes – dyes that change colour rapidly when subject to different lighting conditions. This could be used in lenses, printing, and textiles applications.

• Natural fibres in composite panels – the use of flax, which is cheap, strong and recyclable to replace materials such as glass fibres in composite interior trim panels for the automotive industry. In Germany, where car manufacturers are forced to make their cars totally recyclable, Mercedes use 32kg of natural fibres on each car.

While Olex acknowledges the CeramifiableTM cable product is still new to market, Kiernan says the response from cable customers is exceeding all expectations.

“Industry is quickly recognising that these cables are easier to install, smaller and faster to terminate,” he says. The new technology is expected to be widely adopted in coming years in public buildings, power stations, substations, control centres and other electricity supply facilities.

A highly successful example of Australia’s collaborative research capability, the cables offer the added advantage of enhancing the nation’s export earnings as the intellectual property will continue to be Australian-owned, ready to be licensed to overseas manufacturers.  

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