January 21, 2008

Starlite

The mystery miracle heatproof plastic

In the early 1990s, magazine articles and television shows in Great Britain and the United States ran a series of stories about an incredible new invention: a type of plastic that could withstand virtually any amount of heat. The material’s properties confounded scientists, but even more amazing was that its creator, Maurice Ward, had no academic credentials—he was, in fact, a former hairdresser from North Yorkshire, England. Ward saw a news story about how most of the deaths in an airplane accident had been caused by the toxic fumes from burning plastics. Having spent time working on new formulations for shampoo and conditioner in his home laboratory, he decided to try his hand at concocting a more flame-retardant plastic, and after a series of experiments that ran from 1986 to 1989, he came up with a formula that seemed to be impervious to any sort of heat. His granddaughter suggested that he call the stuff “Starlite.”

That’s Hot
Ward’s initial attempts to interest chemical companies in his new product were entirely unsuccessful; no one took the outrageous claims of this amateur inventor seriously. Then a respectable defense journal published the results of several tests by government agencies. The tests showed, among other things, that a thin piece of Starlite wouldn’t burn even when subjected to temperatures as high as 10,000°C—that’s hotter than the surface of the sun. The material withstood even simulated nuclear blasts and high-powered lasers. That journal article, and others that followed it, began to generate a great deal of interest in Starlite, especially in the defense industry.

One particularly striking quality of Starlite was that it didn’t merely fail to combust; it also insulated astonishingly well. In a demonstration on a BBC television show called “Tomorrow’s World” in 1993, the presenter held a welder’s blowtorch to an egg that had been coated with an invisibly thin layer of Starlite. After several minutes the flame was removed, and the egg was broken to reveal that it was still raw on the inside. In another demonstration, this time on NBC’s “Dateline” in the United States, a piece of Starlite was shown to be cool enough to touch just seconds after exposure to a blowtorch.

Burning Questions
At the time of all this publicity, the only questions seemed to be which company or government agency would get the rights to manufacture Starlite and how many billions of dollars Ward would receive in return. It would only be a matter of time before Starlite was commercialized in some form…spacecraft would have inexpensive, lightweight, and super-durable heat shields; devastating building fires could be made a thing of the past; everything from home appliances and furniture to missiles would be revolutionized by this miraculous heatproof material.

But then something weird happened: nothing. After a few years of relative silence, some vague reports circulated that Ward was actively working with several different manufacturers on the commercial development of Starlite, and also that Ward’s primary interest had recently turned to harness racing, of all things. And since then, there have been no reliable news reports about Starlite or Ward. A 2004 article about Starlite in The Guardian noted that nothing new had been heard since 1997 and ended with the unanswered question: “But whatever happened to Starlite?”

As a matter of fact, it’s not entirely true that nothing has happened since 1997. Maurice Ward is the registrant of starlitetechnologies.com, a site that from roughly 2004 to 2007 did contain useful information about Starlite, such as links to media reports and lists of potential applications. In 2006, a page on the site said: “Delayed for more than 15 years by red tape and incubation in private industry, Starlite has found a second chance to come to market through an alliance with Chris Bennett, an entrepreneur in Austin, Texas.” So far, there’s no sign that this alliance has gone anywhere. The current version of the site has a single page with virtually no information. But at least Ward, who would now be in his early seventies, is doing something with Starlite—even if that’s just fiddling with a Web site!

Curiously, though, it isn’t just Ward’s Web site that has been purged of information about Starlite. Several other sites I consulted also appeared to have gone offline or at least had articles removed in the last year or so. Thanks to resources such as the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I was able to retrieve a number of these articles as they’d appeared in the past, but the sudden disappearance of all this content does get one thinking.

Flame On
Naturally, conspiracy theories abound. Some people suspect that the U.S. or British government has decided that Starlite should be classified, and has taken steps to suppress all public information about it—or that some huge corporation or foreign power has bought out Ward and is trying to keep things quiet to prevent espionage and competition. Others are convinced that the only possible reason Starlite was never commercialized is that it was an elaborate hoax all along.

My own research suggests that the real explanation is much more prosaic. Given the large number of well-documented tests by agencies of various governments and first-hand reports from numerous scientists and engineers, I have no doubt at all that Starlite’s claimed properties are genuine, notwithstanding the inventor’s background. Back in 1993, reports were that Ward refused to consider any deal for commercial production of Starlite that didn’t involve his maintaining at least 51% ownership—and clearly, he has always believed that his invention was worth billions. At the same time, Ward was hyperprotective of his intellectual property. He declined all requests to provide samples for testing that might enable a company to analyze the substance and potentially discover its composition. He never patented it, either, because doing so would require him to reveal his formula. As of the early 1990s, at least, Ward refused even to allow the formula to be written down; only he and a couple of family members knew it, and it was kept only in their heads. That’s hard-core: not even the recipes for Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken are that secret!

In fairness to Ward, his invention is undoubtedly worth a fortune, and he has every right to protect his own interests. However, some have argued that if Starlite is everything it’s cracked up to be, its potential to save lives is so great that it would be ethically wrong to prevent its manufacture just for the sake of a bit more profit. Interestingly, a page on the starlitetechnologies.com Web site in 2006 said: “As a humanitarian, Ward wants to see his invention used for the public good.” That could very well be true; my take on the matter is that financial greed probably isn’t the issue so much as a relentless desire to maintain control. Sooner or later, if it really is all about the public good—and if no technical or manufacturing issues make large-scale production of Starlite infeasible—Starlite is bound to see the light of day. Of course, its success also depends on having a manufacturer and distributor with some wisdom and savvy, qualities that are sometimes difficult for the best of us to judge.

Hot Property
But “sooner or later” isn’t good enough for everyone. More than one person has tried to steal Ward’s formula, and numerous large organizations are rumored to have spent vast sums of money trying to replicate it themselves. Ward himself provided a few clues to Starlite’s composition, which may have given competitors a good place to start. According to the article in International Defense Review that started all the publicity, “It consists of a variety of (organic) polymers and co-polymers with both organic and inorganic additives, including borates and small quantities of ceramics and other special barrier ingredients—up to 21 in all. Perhaps uniquely for a thermal and blast-proof material, it is not wholly inorganic but up to 90 per cent organic.” Ward also mentioned that it could be mixed in an ordinary blender. Following what sounds like a similar recipe, Canadian inventor Troy Hurtubise has created his own heat-resistant product, which he calls firepaste. It appears to have many of the same characteristics as Starlite—it’s resistant not only to fire but to commercialization, and is shrouded in similar secrecy.

I truly hope Starlite turns into a real, commercial product, that it lives up to its hype, that it serves the public good, and that it makes Maurice Ward a wealthy man. And I hope it happens while he still has a few years left to enjoy that wealth. If not, well, best of luck to Troy and to all those evil government conspirators out there. —Joe Kissell

UPDATE #1 (January 23, 2008): I received an interesting email from Don Schnell, who related the following (reprinted with permission):

In the [late] 1990s, I and a partner from Calgary formed a company named Starlite Safety Solutions to market Maurice’s product. We brought Maurice to Calgary and introduced him to a group of investors and pitched several proposals for marketing his product including one involving the University of Calgary and the establishment of a research and development centre. That little effort cost us $80,000 CDN. My partner knew Maurice personally, and if anyone had a chance to do a deal with Maurice it was us. Like some of the thoroughbreds I have owned over the years (mostly hayburners) Maurice proved to be very unpredictable. The more we offered, the more he seemed to want. We went way beyond what reasonable investors would do, but I have a personal philosophy to help my fellow man and Starlite would help so much. But alas no deal would satisfy his continuously increasing agenda. In short, he was a moving target. It does not surprise me that it is not yet on the market. There was some question as to whether or not he could replicate the formula, and also, the British Government indicated to us that they may declare it a secret product. I have since closed my file on it, but have never lost interest in it.

He later added:

I have videos of tests that were conducted and it is truly an amazing product. I was told that he had participated in some discussions with NASA for obvious reasons. We were working with fire retardant products at that time.

UPDATE #2 (April 1, 2008): I had a long phone conversation with Maurice Ward himself. He assured me that, despite various setbacks and delays in the past, efforts are currently underway to commercialize Starlite. That was certainly good to hear.

UPDATE #3 (February 3, 2009): Yet another interesting email, this time from Pamela Pohling-Brown (reprinted with permission):

Quite by chance I came across your article of Jan 2008 on Starlite which makes mention of mine in International Defense Review (part of the Jane’s group) in the early 1990s (‘93 or ‘94). I can assure you that the article was not a hoax, despite the date of publication of that issue—it was a monthly magazine and we published on the same day each month. It was perhaps unfortunate that such a startling article should have been published in that issue but it had been on the stocks for several weeks, and in any case IDR prided itself on original and exclusive material and high-level contacts, and that would have been by no means the only interesting piece in that issue—it was just the one that aroused the most attention in the general public.
However, we did consider that we had a scoop on Starlite and that nothing much had emerged in the public domain before that. The person who drew my attention to it was Professor Sir Ronald Mason, an impeccable source as well as a good friend and contact of many years’ standing. The sources who supplied the test results were also unimpeachable. I was unable to witness a test, for obvious reasons, but did talk to Maurice Ward at some length and formed the opinion that his claims were to be taken seriously, but that he was a true English eccentric. He subsequently formed relationships with various defence companies, including Hunting, but was afraid that he would be fobbed off with a relatively meagre lump sum while any company he dealt with would profit much much more and take the credit. And so some at least seemed to want to do. So afraid of this was he that it was said that his daughter accompanied him to tests and meetings with a hoover (vacuum cleaner) in case small pieces should become detached. I cannot testify to the truth of this, but you indicated something of the same in your own piece.

Sir Ronald Mason is still active and a still a respected scientist and both I and my then editor, Rupert Pengelley, still have our wits about us. I always hoped to see the material in use as, to the best of my knowledge, it would revolutionise safety in many many walks of life. I fear, however, that it may have now somehow been classified and indeed possibly suppressed if it renders some current project/research area null; this was another of Maurice’s fears and I have little doubt that he only agreed to our publishing anything at the time because he thought that some measure of public attention would make suppression by whatever body less easy. At the time we joked about “The Man in the White Suit” —a British film of the 1950s.

More Information about Starlite…

Thanks to readers Michael Tighe and Tom for suggesting today’s topic, and to Don Schnell for his additional insights!

The current incarnation of www.starlitetechnologies.com has just a malformed and nearly content-free home page with contact info and a picture of a race horse. (Even using the page’s own search field produces no results other than that one page.) However, when I sent an email to the AOL address shown on the page asking to join the mailing list, I received what appeared to be a human reply signed “mw.” Meanwhile, if you want to see how the site looked in the past, when it had much more (and more interesting) content, check out this link at The Wayback Machine.

Articles on the Web about Starlite include the following:

  • The article that started all the publicity was Taking the heat astonishing results with new material by Pamela Pohling-Brown in the International Defense Review (April 1, 1993—I can only presume that date isn’t significant!) [as posted at www. starlitetechnologies.com in December 2004, via the Wayback Machine]
  • Wonder Plastic Baffles World by John McGhie in The Observer (April 11, 1993) [quoted in a post to Google Groups]
  • Plastic That Can Withstand a Nuclear Blast? by Fred Guterl in Business Week (August 16, 1993) [as posted at www. starlitetechnologies.com in January 2005, via the Wayback Machine]
  • A transcript of the Starlite Plastic Report by Jane Pauley on “Dateline” (August 24, 1993) [as posted at www. starlitetechnologies.com in February 2005, via the Wayback Machine]
  • The Starlite Mystery Page was last updated in 2002, but appears to have no information about developments more recent than 1997.
  • Vanishing Starlite by Mark Pilkington in The Guardian (April 8, 2004)
  • Too hot to handle at Alternative Science [from July 2007, via the Wayback Machine]
  • Starlite in the Wikipedia
  • Material erregaitz harrigarria by Jon Otaolaurretxi at Zientzia.net (January 1, 1994)—note that this article is written in the Basque language Euskara, about which I’ve written previously on Interesting Thing of the Day

The article Inventor spurns burns with red-hot invention at BayToday.ca (October 4, 2003) describes Troy Hurtubise’s firepaste.

By the way, since I know someone is going to call me on this, various sources estimate the temperature of the sun’s surface to be anywhere from 5,500 to 6,000°C. The interior of the sun, however, is much hotter.