Effective fire protection

Helping to prevent devastating events: Athene Young Investigator Federica Ferraro

2023/06/21 by

The basic research carried out by Federica Ferraro could save lives. The aerospace engineer and new Athene Young Investigator at TU Darmstadt is investigating how to prevent fires. She intends to conduct in-depth research into the effect of flame retardants on the development of so-called “boundary layer flames”, which are often highly significant for fires in ceilings, walls or on smooth surfaces such as floors and roofs. If these flame retardants are embedded in plastic materials, they could help to save lives in the event of a fire.

Athene Young Investigator Dr. Federica Ferraro

Dr. Federica Ferraro learned just how important her field of research really is when a fuse blew in her apartment. It was the smell that first alerted the engineer to the danger. She was lucky that a fire had not yet developed but according to Ferraro “it already smelt really bad”. Since then, she always has the “corpus delicti” – the partially charred plastic element – close to hand if she wants to demonstrate precisely what it is that she is researching.

The researcher is convinced that “a fire would certainly have broken out if the plastic had not contained a flame retardant”. Federica Ferraro now wants to find out precisely what effect phosphate-based flame retardants have on the dynamics of laminar and also turbulent boundary layer flames developed close to walls or ceilings in her research project as an Athene Young Investigator (AYI) . “This area has not been researched in detail up to now but is extremely important for effective fire protection”, she says with conviction.

Analysis of chemical reactions planned

Ferraro was born in Italy, studied aerospace engineering at the “La Sapienza” University in Rome and then completed her PhD at the University of the Bundeswehr Munich. She now wants to carry out basic research into the effect that retardants have on the thermochemical state of flames, as well as on their structure and fluid dynamics. Using numerical models and simulations, Ferraro intends to investigate and analyse the combustion process in the gaseous phase and also in the surface of the plastics (polymers). “This will fill an important gap in current research.”

Polymers can be found in lots of different materials and almost everywhere in offices, apartments and buildings – e.g. in cables, plugs, fuses, computer housings and furniture. The researcher at TU Darmstadt, who works in the Institute for Simulation of Reactive Thermo-Fluid Systems in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, highlights one tragic example: the Grenfell Tower fire in London in summer 2017 in which 72 people ultimately lost their lives in this 24-storey building. The cause of the fire was a blown fuse in a faulty fridge.

“A residential fire spreads extremely quickly because absolutely everything burns”, says Federica Ferraro. “If we could better understand how flame retardants embedded in polymers actually work and influence a fire, we might be better able to prevent or contain such devastating events in the future.” At the very least, Ferraro believes that they should restrict the spread of the flames and give people more time to escape the fire. It may be possible in this way to prevent many of the deaths caused by smoke and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Dr. Federica Ferraro,
Athene Young Investigator

If we could better understand how flame retardants embedded in polymers actually work and influence a fire, we might be better able to prevent or contain such devastating events in the future.

Dr.-Ing. Federica Ferraro am Schreibtisch in ihrem Büro am Fachgebiet Simulation reaktiver Thermo Fluid Systeme.
Picture: Katrin Binner

Funding by the Athene Young Investigator Program

It is for this reason that Ferraro believes her Athene Young Investigator project, included in the CRC/TRR 150, is relevant to society. The researcher at TU Darmstadt believes that her work will help save lives. She hopes that companies and manufacturers will use the models and methods she develops for their products and to deliver greater protection against fire. Ferraro also wants to make the research into fire protection a new area of focus at her institute in the Department of Mechanical Engineering where she has worked since 2019.

The young scientist has been the TU Group Leader for “Multidimensional simulations of chemically-reactive flows” in the team headed by Professor Christian Hasse since 2021 and has been carrying out research into, among other things, sustainable combustion systems and alternative fuels. Before that, she worked for almost three years at the DLR (German Aerospace Center) in Cologne. “I wanted to be an astronaut as a child” she explains with a laugh. She became an aerospace engineer and carried out research in the field of propulsion and combustion technology. “It was a good and useful experience”, she says.

However, she also has a passion for teaching, which is why she returned to TU Darmstadt and the university. “I really value the contact with students.” Her aim is now to become a professor. She wants to stand in the lecture hall, supervise undergraduates and doctoral students and carry out independent research. The funding as an “Athene Young Investigator” is thus very important to her. “It gives me the opportunity to pursue an academic career.”

The Athene Young Investigator Programme

The Athene Young Investigator (AYI) Programme at TU Darmstadt supports exceptional researchers on their career path for a period of five years. The aim is to promote the scientific independence of early career researchers and give them the opportunity to qualify for the post of university professor by leading an independent junior research group. The heads of these junior research groups are given certain professorial rights and their own budget.

In 2023, the TU Darmstadt has awarded another four excellent young researchers as “Athene Young Investigators”. In the coming weeks, we will introduce the four researchers on the TU Darmstadt website.