After entering UNSW Canberra's mechanical engineering workshop and walking past the benches covered in lawnmower engines, you'll find yourself at the entrance to the university's brand new 'fire lab'.

The Pyrometric Laboratory (to give it its proper name) is the first of its kind in Australia. It’s chock full of brand new, state-of-the-art equipment that will allow researchers and students to set fire to all manner of materials - safely of course.

By observing these objects burn and measuring how they respond to fire, researchers hope to eventually develop a range of materials that are more flame resistant. This includes eco-friendly building materials and more protective uniforms for firefighters.

The lab’s lead researcher and senior lecturer in engineering, Maryam Ghodrat, said the lab’s main focus is to help save homes, businesses and, most importantly, lives from fire.

“We’re expecting to see bigger and more destructive bushfires as we continue to feel the effects of climate change,” Dr Ghodrat said.

“That means more homes and businesses will be impacted by fire and we want to make them as safe and resistant to fire as possible.

“By testing different materials in the Pyrometric Lab we can see how they respond to fire and which are the safest. Eventually, we hope this research will lead to the development of new materials that are more flame resistant than anything currently available.

“This research can inform Australian building standards so that homes built in bushfire prone areas are as protected as they possibly can be.”

But the lab won’t only focus on building materials.

Engineering honours students, Jonathan Lu and ADFA Navy Sub Lieutenant (SBLT) Matthew Hordern, are currently undertaking two research projects in the lab that could have far-reaching benefits for firefighters and the automotive industry.

UNSW Canberra honours students Jonathan Lu and Matthew Hordern are among the first people to conduct experiments in the Pyrometric Lab. Image: UNSW Canberra

Jonathan’s research involves him burning a selection of fabrics from firefighter uniforms in the ‘burner box’; one of the new pieces of equipment that is the size of a large oven and can expose materials to direct flame.

He is testing fabric from a 2013 NSW Rural Fire Service jacket and also a current Fire and Rescue uniform, one that would be used in metropolitan firefighting.

“I’m observing how the different materials respond to direct flame, and I’m interested to see how that might have changed in the years between when these uniforms were manufactured,” Jonathan said.

“If we can get a better understanding of how quickly the fabric ignites and how fast the flame spreads, it will hopefully lead to being able to produce better, more fire-resistant uniforms.

“Firefighters go into extremely dangerous situations, so if we can do something to help keep them safer and potentially save lives then that’s an awesome achievement.”

Concurrently, SBLT Hordern is setting fire to different plastic car parts he salvages from wrecking yards around Canberra. He’s looking at an entry-level car (Honda Jazz), a mid-level (Ford Focus) and a high-end car (Range Rover).

“I’m taking plastic bits from inside the car, such as centre consoles, dashboards and ‘pleather’ seats, anything that might be in the immediate vicinity of people inside a car in an accident,” SBLT Hordern said.

“If a car catches fire in an accident, that’s obviously really dangerous considering the fuel and other chemicals. But I’m interested in what happens if the plastics catch fire, and what chemicals they emit when they burn that people could be exposed to.”

Jonathan Lu sets up an experiment in the burner box where a piece of firefighter clothing will be burned. Image: UNSW Canberra

In addition to the ‘burner box’, the lab is also stocked with a smouldering test device, an oxygen index analyser and a structural cohesion tester. It is the only lab in Australia to have all of this equipment in one location.

Jacob Ross, the laboratory technician overseeing the lab, said it had been a challenge to get up to speed with the new equipment.

“We acquired the equipment over the past 18 months and commissioning the different machines was a challenge that required a lot of research,” Mr Ross said.

“We had to ensure we met the specific requirements of each machine so we can have confidence in the results they produce. And all the relevant safety measures had to be put in place before the students and researchers could work with them.

“It’s been a great experience to work with such high-end equipment and support the important research that will be undertaken in this lab.”

Read more about the equipment in the Pyrometric Laboratory here:

Students Matthew Hordern and Jonathan Lu prepare to use the burner box. Image: UNSW Canberra