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.”
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, on the inauspicious date of April 1, 1993, a respectable defense journal called International Defense Review published an article by Pamela Pohling-Brown titled “Taking the heat astonishing results with new material,” detailing 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.
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, but also that Ward’s primary interest had recently turned to harness racing, of all things. Then both Ward and Starlite seemed to disappear from the media almost entirely. 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 after 1997. Maurice Ward was, for a time, the registrant of starlitetechnologies.com, a site that from roughly 2004 to 2007 contained 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.” Around the same time, articles all over the web that previously contained information about Starlite started to disappear somewhat mysteriously, suggesting that Ward had asked for their removal. (I found copies of many of them using resources such as the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.)
Despite Ward’s claims, it should come as no surprise that numerous conspiracy theories arose to explain Starlite’s strange absence from the spotlight. Some people suspected 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 had bought out Ward and is trying to keep things quiet to prevent espionage and competition. Others were convinced that the only possible reason Starlite was never commercialized was that it had been an elaborate hoax all along.
My own research suggested that the real explanation was 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 were 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; he said that 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!
To be sure, Starlite was undoubtedly worth a fortune, and Ward had every right to protect his own interests. However, some argued that if Starlite was everything it was cracked up to be, its potential to save lives was 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 website back in 2006 said: “As a humanitarian, Ward wants to see his invention used for the public good.” That might have been true; my take on the matter at the time was that financial greed probably wasn’t the issue so much as a relentless desire to maintain control.
The Plot Thickens
In 2008, I published the first version of this article here on Interesting Thing of the Day. A couple of days later, 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.
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.
A few months later I received a phone call from none other than Maurice Ward himself. Back in those days, I was running Google ads on this site, and some of the ads that popped up on the page with this article were for companies he considered competitors. He thought I was in league with those companies to cause him financial harm. After I explained that the ads were placed algorithmically without my involvement, that I had no desire to harm him, and that I’d be happy to exclude any advertisers from that page that bothered him, he seemed satisfied and we had a nice chat. He assured me that, despite various setbacks and delays in the past, efforts were underway to commercialize Starlite.
Then, in early 2009 I received yet another interesting email, this time from Pamela Pohling-Brown (again, 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.
Despite all the tests and public claims, it may be that Starlite had a secret flaw. There’s an intriguing hint, left by an anonymous commenter on an article about Ward, that Starlite’s fireproof properties may have been too short-lived to be of commercial use, and that Ward’s inability to overcome this issue was in fact the whole problem. But we may never know the whole truth. In May 2011, Maurice Ward died at age 78. Since then, his family has provided no further public information about Starlite, suggesting that they didn’t have the formula after all. Ward’s blog, last updated in 2009, still gets occasional comments from people hoping he’s still alive and still working on the product.
During Ward’s lifetime, more than one person tried to steal the Starlite 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 created his own heat-resistant product, which he called firepaste. It appeared to have many of the same characteristics as Starlite—it was resistant not only to fire but to commercialization, and was shrouded in similar secrecy. Hurtubise died in June 2018, and I have no idea if anyone else knows how to create firepaste.
I’m unsure what lessons are to be learned from this tale, but I find it incredibly sad that for whatever combination of reasons, a technology that might have saved many lives has seemingly been lost forever.
Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on January 21, 2008.
Image credit: By Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (C) Crown Copyright 1989 [OGL 3], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Interesting Thing of the Day