Guowen Song, the Noma Scott Lloyd Chair in Textiles and Clothing at Iowa State University, is working to develop new textile materials for protective clothing worn by firefighters so it will provide better protection, less heat stress, and reduce burn injuries. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Clothing aims to improve health and safety of firefighters

Guowen Song is taking the world’s lightest material — a “graphene aerogel” that is even lighter than air — and researching how it can be used to improve the health, safety, and comfort of protective clothing worn by firefighters.

“We’re trying to see how to make this material apply in clothing,” Song said. “Protective clothing and textile-based equipment are critical for firefighters to ensure their safety and health. Ineffective protection at a fire scenario with multiple hazards can cause injury and fatality among victims and firefighting personnel.”

Song is a scientist who’s the Noma Scott Lloyd Chair in Textiles and Clothing at Iowa State University. By applying scientific knowledge to textiles and clothing, he is trying to develop new textile materials for better performance.

“In the past 10 years, I have developed a unique research program that improves clothing performance and prevents human injuries,” said Song, an associate professor in apparel, events, and hospitality management.

Reducing heat stress for firefighters

Song’s research analyzes the performance of protective clothing that’s been exposed to thermal hazards such as fire, hot surfaces, molten substances, hot liquids, and steam. Special labs in LeBaron Hall at Iowa State house high-tech equipment that test clothing by simulating these hazards.

The work aims to helps firefighters, first responders, military personnel, police officers, hazardous materials removal workers, and others exposed to heat and dangerous chemicals.

Protective clothing and gear currently worn by firefighters are heavy and tough to breath in, which causes increased physiological strain. Statistics show that half of firefighter injuries and deaths stem from heat stress.

In collaboration with Iowa State mechanical engineering professor Xinwei Wang, Song is using the new material called graphene aerogel to develop a novel fabric system with better protection and comfort for firefighters. He’s seeking funding for his research from the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The system as conceived is lightweight but engineered with high thermal insulation,” he said. “Most importantly, the system would store more thermal energy and discharge less to human skin, therefore reducing burn injuries.”

Integrating science and technology with design

Song leads a team of Iowa State researchers in apparel, merchandising, and design who are emerging on the national scene with their work of integrating science and technology with design.

Other members of the team include: Eulanda Sanders, the Donna R. Danielson Professor in Textiles and Clothing; associate professor Young-A Lee; and assistant professors Ellen McKinney, Fatma Baytar, and Chunhui Xiang.

In recent years, Iowa State has ranked as finalists in national competitions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice seeking federal funding for complex problems in technical design, such as functional and protective clothing for firefighters, police officers, and military personnel.

Before coming to Iowa State, Song helped to develop a new national standard of protection for Canadian first responders from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear events.

“Since 2005, I have conducted a series of tests to measure the thermal stored energy that contributes to skin burns,” he said. “The data obtained from these investigations led to the development of a new thermal stored energy standard. These investigations also provide fundamental data for new textile material development.”