Dr. Miriam Rafailovich: Flame Retardant Trees and Material Science

Exploring Nuclear Physics in Material Science

[Alaina Rumrill] Dr. Miriam Rafailovich, Professor of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering at Stony Brook University, brings her expertise in nuclear physics to the forefront of material science. With a doctoral background in nuclear physics, she examines the properties and behaviors of atomic nuclei, paving the way for groundbreaking applications in various fields. Nuclear physics delves into the structure, the composition, and the interactions of atomic nuclei as well as nuclear reactions and decay [1]. 

One particular application of nuclear physics lies in the realm of tire safety. In understanding the problem of why tire blowouts happen so frequently, Dr. Rafailovich directs her attention toward the underlying mechanisms behind these incidents. In our interview with us, she emphasized the need to study the polymer interfaces between different layers of the tire, which can be measured using neutrons, a direct application of nuclear physics [1].

Polymer interfaces refer to a macromolecular system consisting of an array of assembled polymer chains, molecular chains of repeating units, on a support structure [2].  The migration of polymer chains refers to their movement within the rubber compounds of tires. This migration, driven by entropy considerations, is a phenomenon that profoundly impacts tire performance. Polymer chains will migrate to increase the entropy of a system, or dynamically reposition themselves to maximize disorder [1]. When carbon black nanocomposite particles are present in a tire to strengthen it, they will react very strongly with the polymer chains [1]. The interaction stops the migration of polymer chains, ultimately leading to a tire blowout. By understanding how polymer chains migrate within tire compounds and interact with strengthening carbon black nanocomposites, Dr. Miriam Rafailovich has helped to prevent tire blowouts and enhance tire performance.

Flame Retardants

Dr. Rafailovich’s most notable contributions center around flame retardancy, aiming to develop environmentally friendly alternatives. Flame retardants do not stop fires, but instead, work to increase the time it takes for a material to catch fire [1]. By creating a protective barrier, oxygen is prevented from getting in. With enough heat and time, the coating melts away and becomes useless. This also does long-lasting damage to the environment. Many flame retardants do not break down easily, remaining in the environment for years, as well as bioaccumulating inside living organisms  [1]. This introduces toxic disruptions to the reproduction, development, behavior, and overall health of organisms [1]. 

Drawing inspiration from nature, Dr. Rafailovich’s research mimics the fire-resistant properties of the sequoia tree. Biomimicry, or the process of replicating a chemical’s natural property in the lab, was an essential part of Dr. Rafailovich’s work [1].  In California, sequoia trees have been around for around 1000 years, withstanding the hot California wildfires. This is because the natural materials within sequoia trees react with fire to produce intermediate materials [1]. Dr. Rafailovich and her team discovered furfuryl alcohol as an environmentally friendly chemical, with a specific chemical structure and composition to give it a unique endothermic property when exposed to heat. The endothermic reaction will absorb the heat from its surrounding environment, resulting in a lower temperature [1]. At lower temperatures, ignition and combustion processes can be hindered, making it more difficult for a fire to sustain itself and effectively preventing it from spreading [1]. 

Figure 1. Furfuryl alcohol.

Fire Safety Solutions

Dr. Rafailovich’s dedication to fire safety stems from her personal experiences, including her involvement with Stony Brook’s volunteer firefighter burn unit [1]. Upon listening to the narratives shared by firefighters and burn survivors, she recognized the impact that experiencing burns can have on an individual’s life. Witnessing the devastating impact of burns, particularly those caused by flying embers, motivated her research efforts. Under ambient conditions, contact with a flying ember could result in a second-degree burn on the face within a mere 30 seconds [1]. She recognized that if there was something she could do to stop fires, or even mitigate the temperature of fires, it could make a huge impact. 

Her commitment resulted in a revolutionary collaboration with Esteé Lauder to formulate a flame retardant face cream. Engineered with flame retardant properties, the cream offers unparalleled protection against flying embers, significantly reducing the risk of burns [1]. Using this face cream, one can be in contact with a burning ember for 2 minutes before developing a second degree burn, an incredible four times longer than without [1].

Other Research

Dr. Miriam Rafailovich’s studies go far beyond tires and flame retardants, with other interests in hydrogen fuel cells and nanoparticles [1]. Nanoparticles have influence on medical applications that require careful consideration of nanotoxicology, or the interaction of nanoparticles with people [1]. A nanoparticle is nanometer sized (10-9 of a meter) and when cells are confronted with a nano condition or environment, they behave in unknown ways.

Dr. Rafailovich looks at the effect of nanoparticles in cancer and HeLa cells, in which nanoparticle absorption triggers an upregulation of an enzyme responsible for cholesterol regulation [1]. This enzymatic surge expels cholesterol from the cell, rendering the cell membrane more brittle and susceptible to infection by skin-eating bacteria like S. aureus [1]. Conversely, when endothelial cells are exposed to nanoparticles such as titanium dioxide, angiogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels, is enhanced. This phenomenon confers increased bacterial resistance to the endothelial cells [1]. Dr. Rafailovich makes the case that nanoparticles are a simple solution to certain medical problems when used in the proper critical dosage. 

Learn More

If you’d like to hear more about Dr. Miriam Rafailovich’s journey and her findings in the field of material science, visit us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and many other streaming services to listen to our ChemTalk Podcast with Dr. Miriam Rafailovich, Professor of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering at Stony Brook University. To read further about Dr. Rafailovich’s research, you can visit the Garcia Center for Polymers at Engineered Interfaces here.

Find the ChemTalk podcast here.

Works Cited

[1] Rafailovich, Miriam. Personal Interview. Nina Deng, Nicholas Molitor, and Yeongseo Son. 17 July 2023.

[2] Barner-Kowollik, Christopher, Anja S. Goldmann, and Felix H. Schacher. “Polymer Interfaces: Synthetic Strategies Enabling Functionality, Adaptivity, and Spatial Control.” Macromolecules 49, no. 14 (June 29, 2016): 5001–16.