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The Australian company Ayres Composite Panels has launched an innovative fire insulation system for high-speed/lightweight commercial vehicle ferries and similar naval vessels. The system was developed in co-operation with Colbeck & Gunton (Australia) and Thermal Ceramics (UK), and it recently won a JEC Innovation Award.
(Published on October 2008 – JEC Magazine #44)
The main element of the system is an epoxy/glass-faced aluminium honeycomb panel, which carries a special intumescent felt insulation layer on one side. The intumescent felt is protected from daily wear and tear by a coated glass fabric covering. This covering also makes the panels look attractive.
How it works
These patented, lightweight insulation panels (4 kg/m²) are 2,400 x 1,200 x 16 mm. They are produced using a hot press curing process at 120°C. In the event of a fire, the ceramic fibre intumescent felt layer expands nine fold, creating an effective insulation to protect the hull from heat, which could otherwise cause the structural failure of the vessel. The aluminium honeycomb panel is also protected by its own insulation layer, so it is able to keep supporting the insulation as the fire temperature increases to around 1,000°C after 1 hour.
The system is approximately half the weight of existing “steel cassette” panel systems. It saves up to 12 metric tons for a typical vessel, thus resulting in higher speed and/or higher payload and/or lower fuel consumption.
The panels cost more than existing materials but a larger panel size (x3) means that only about one third of the usual time is needed to install the system. They are also easy to install, which means skilled labour is unnecessary, thus significantly reducing installation costs.
The development started with the identification of a market demand for a lightweight fire insulation system. The customers of Ayres Composite Panels, who mainly build high-performance commercial and naval ships, are continually looking to reduce weight. Vehicle decks tend to use a lot of “steel cassette” insulation panels and Ayres thought it could do better. The company sourced commerciallyavailable raw materials and put together a prototype panel, which was fire tested on a small-scale. Results were good, but Ayres realised that however good the panel might be, it would never supply any panels unless it developed a full system of installation joiners, sprinkler penetrations, etc. Marine fire certification rules are very strict and panels can only be certified when assembled into real-life installations with joints, etc. The company approached the leading installer of insulation systems onboard lightweight vessels with its initial fire results – the Australian company Colbeck & Gunton – who was rather impressed. The two companies therefore decided to work together. Ayres Composite Panel later found that it needed an improved intumescent felt insulation layer to complete the full 60-minute protection that the fire rules demand. A third company, Thermal Ceramics, UK, then joined the team and developed the required insulation layer. Then all three partners had to manufacture the product and begin the onerous testing process required. All testing costs were split 3 ways equally.
Four years of development
The partners first fabricated a sidewall (approx 2.4 m x 6 m) that was installed onto the open side of a special large furnace in a fire testing laboratory. A representative section of an aluminium vessel hull was positioned behind the insulation system, and the furnace was fired. Temperature readings were taken on the aluminium hull throughout the one-hour test. After a number of modifications and refinements, the test was repeated in a horizontal position, which was even more difficult.
The partners finally built a representative room, which was fired with a gas burner, and the system was tested for flammability and smoke production. The entire development and testing process took about 4 years. The first installation was a small ceiling section. The partners had to modify the panel cosmetics as car decks are very dark and the panels need to be a light colour and light reflecting. A more elaborate installation was then set up at the same shipyard, without any problems. The system was then introduced to other shipyards. Three different customers are currently using this system, including the two biggest builders of this type of vessel in the world.
It is quite challenging to sell a material that is more expensive than existing materials, even though the weight savings are considerable. Customers have to “think outside the box” and not only take into consideration the material cost but also the total installed cost, which is lower for this system.
This development, which includes panels and a quick-release joining/assembly system, is fully certified to International Maritime Organisation High Speed Craft Code requirements. It is currently being fitted onboard a number of large vessels. Ayres Composite Panels aims to secure a very high percentage of the world market onboard high-speed vehicle ferries, and is already well on the way to achieving its goal. However, the major market is at present untapped: vehicle deck linings for high-speed navy vessels. One project in the USA alone will require 200,000 m2 of panelling, so Ayres is currently trying hard to achieve specification for the US military market.