Combustion expert Claire Benson shares how her team is solving the latest problems in health and safety
Claire Benson starts fires. Right now she’s a little envious of some colleagues. ‘The Building Research Establishment has a green, carbon neutral home they’ve developed. I bet their fire scientists are all sitting there, waiting to burn it down. I would be, with that lovely house. It’s going to be really interesting how it reacts.’
Benson’s interest is purely professional. As part of the Explosion and Fire Research Group at London South Bank University, UK, the PhD chemical engineer spends her time studying what most people try to avoid.
The group works on a myriad of projects, and is currently focused on hydrogen explosions and aeronautics. Benson completed her PhD in November 2015, looking at fires in oxygen-rich environments for the Royal Air Force. ‘It was great,’ she enthuses. ‘It was fascinating to look at active chemistry and how important polymer chemistry is, and how little we know about polymer degradation and thermal decomposition, and ignition, in really high pressure (3–45MPa) oxygen enriched atmospheres … I think everyone when they do their PhD finds that things you assume are known are not really known.’
Benson admits she fell in to her current role (‘well, who isn’t interested in fire?’). Unsure what to do after her A levels, she studied forensics at London South Bank. ‘It was never portrayed as a degree to get you a job immediately, although many did,’ she explains. ‘It was pointing you in the right direction. It grounded me in analytical chemistry, with a particularly strong emphasis on fires and industrial investigations. It was a fascinating area, from a chemistry point of view, identifying root causes.’
A background in forensics means Benson has also done work with the London Fire Brigade, and has helped assess car fires for health and safety lessons, and completed projects on how arson data is shared with the police. Currently, her focus is on fire suppression systems in aircraft, working on green alternatives as part of the CleanSky2 EFFICIENT project. ‘It’s one of the few places we use halons,’ she explains. ‘There are alternatives, but the nature of the stuff we have to stop – flaming combustion but also explosive combustion from aerosol cans – makes it difficult and space and weight limitations in aircraft make the problem even more challenging.’
The sheer breadth of the work, and the wide amount of real-world variables, means that there’s no such thing as a typical day and requires a wide skill set. Benson’s group includes an environmental chemist, a straight chemist, a physicist, a chemical engineer and a metallurgist, and they build their own rigs in-house to give them the flexibility they need. Even so, working with combustion presents its own challenges.
‘When you get in to the lab and test things with fire, even looking at small pieces with a differential scanning calorimeter, the results move around,’ Benson says. ‘They are not fixed, and variation can be quite significant. And you have to then build that information in to safety protocols. It’s a trend with fire that you know what should happen, based on everything anecdotally said or you know about chemistry, but then something utterly unexpected will happen. Your assumptions are wrong, or, with fire, so many variables are in play it becomes probabilistic rather than will-or-won’t.’
Name: Claire Benson
Role: Research fellow, Explosions and Fire Research Group
Based: London South Bank University, UK
CV: BSc forensic science, PhD in chemical engineering, both at London South Bank University. Works with the London Fire Brigade and Ministry of Defence in addition to research and lecturing
Given the importance of her work, Benson says it’s a major issue that people don’t always appreciate the importance of health and safety, and the work done by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK. ‘We have such an impressive health and safety culture in the UK. We had quite a lot of incidents in the 70s and 80s and the industry was very proactive in trying to prevent that from happening again… what concerns me is the idea that, with these excellent systems, we become complacent and you see a drop in standards. In recent years the focus for some has turned to a deregulatory agenda, which is worrying’
These high standards are particularly crucial in the next 10 years given the current trends in living, Benson predicts. ‘The biggest challenge will be safety of new materials. All the time, we’re developing new materials for greener and more integrated living spaces, and green energy sources. Maintaining the fire safety of that is a big challenge.’
And for undergraduates looking at taking on these challenges, Benson’s advice is relatively simple. ‘The easiest route is to take fire engineering as a masters,’ she says. ‘That will give you an excellent grounding in the chemistry and fire dynamics. But the group in my office has such a variety of jobs, it’s hard to say there is one route in … it’s one of those subjects that covers so many areas and industries, we need a pool with a wide understanding of different subjects.’
It’s this pool that will help safeguard the future, Benson says. ‘The time when people appreciate health and safety is when terrible things happen around the world,’ she muses. ‘But it also highlights where we’re getting it right.’