The cool chemistry of flame-resistant clothing

CHICAGO, IL -- (Crain's Chicago Business - October 23, 2014) - In 2007, two Marines were killed in Afghanistan when a roadside bomb exploded, melting their polyester undergarments onto their skin. After the deaths, a Chicago company, Drifire LLC, got to work to develop clothing that would protect others from burns like those.

 The next year, Drifire's textile technologist, Rob Hines, came up with an acrylic fabric that doesn't melt. It also self-extinguishes.

 Now he and his colleagues are making protective clothing more comfortable by using an ultra-lightweight, flame-resistant fabric they've branded Drifire 4.4. The name refers to its weight—4.4 ounces per square yard. That's about the same as cotton or Tencel but only a third as much as denim. Another plus: The new material dries faster than other flame-resistant fabrics, says Mr. Hines, 47, Drifire's vice president of product development.

For workers who have to suit up in layers of protective clothing, comfort and moisture management mean a lot. “You want perspiration to easily evaporate,” he says.

 Drifire, owned by Chicago's Sterling Partners since its launch in 2006, makes flame-resistant apparel for every branch of the U.S. military as well as the oil, gas and chemical industries and, in a partnership with sports equipment maker Oakley Inc., automobile race teams. The suggested retail price is $139 for the 4.4 coverall and $89 for the 4.4 work shirt.


Bob Pastene, Drifire's senior vice president of sales and marketing, predicts that 2015 sales will approach $50 million, thanks to increased oil and gas production in the U.S. Competitors include Carhartt Inc., VF Imagewear Inc.'s Bulwark, Saf-Tech Inc. and Workrite Uniform Co. Altogether, revenue in the protective clothing market could reach $8 billion by 2018, analysts say. The company has 25 employees.

 Kim Wilson, CEO of Slate Rock Safety LLC, a distributor of safety apparel in Medina, Ohio, has been selling Drifire apparel for six years and says it's among her company's top-selling brands. The new fabric won her over right off the bat. “4.4 is a big deal,” she says. “Drifire uses superior technology.”

 A North Carolina native, Mr. Hines joined Drifire in 2008. He previously worked on flame-resistant apparel development at Johnston Textiles Inc. in Phenix City, Alabama, after earning a master's degree at the Institute of Textile Technology in Raleigh, North Carolina. His specialty is fabrics rated to protect against fire or heat-related threats such as an arc flash during an electrical installation.

 Creating a fabric takes 10 to 16 months, Mr. Hines says, as he combines different fabric blends, like a chemist or a cook, and then measures their effectiveness. He follows an open innovation platform, developing fabrics in consultation with fiber technologists, designers and garment makers outside the company. Work on 4.4 started in November. In May, he received a U.S. patent for one of his fabrics.

 All flame-resistant apparel must meet design and construction standards set by the National Fire Protection Association before Mr. Hines' final signoff.