Starlite, the nuclear blast-defying
plastic that could change the world
Two decades ago amateur scientist Maurice Ward invented a
material that could resist the force of 75 Hiroshimas. So why
haven't we all heard about it?
The gentleman feels for something in his jacket pocket. It's a
nice suit, and it is accompanied by a suitably gentlemanly
bow-tie. The effect is sartorially unusual but not too much.
What will come out of the pocket, though, is more than unusual.
It is unparalleled and almost unbelievable. 'Here,' says Maurice
Ward, handing over a creamy small square. 'That's Starlite.'
It's a piece of plastic that bends in all directions, with a
charred mark the size of a coin on one side. 'That's from the
nuclear blast,' says Ward. 'Don't worry, there's no nuclear
stuff on it. I wouldn't have given it to you otherwise.'
It feels and looks like nothing much, but holding this
nondescript piece of plastic would be, to the world's defence
and scientific community, somewhat of a privilege. Starlite,
invented by the white-bearded, suited Ward, has been described
as astonishing; impossible; miraculous. It has changed
assumptions about thermodynamics and physics. It can resist
temperatures that would melt diamonds, threefold. 'If it is what
it seems,' says Toby Greenbury, a partner at law firm Mischon de
Reya and Ward's lawyer for 20 years, 'it will be of enormous
benefit to mankind. It's very difficult to think of another
invention that is bigger in its implications.' As a
fire-retardant, thermal barrier or heat-resistant coating,
Starlite could change the world. Except that it hasn't, and
that's as much of a mystery as the secret, unheard of properties
of the material Ward invented 23 years ago.
At the time, Ward and his family his wife Eileen and four
daughters ran a small plastics business. It was a departure
from the family trade, which was ladies' hairdressing with
Ward mixing hair products and dyes himself. They'd come from all
over the north for his colouring skills, he says. 'My heads
couldn't be copied. What L'Oreal and Garnier are doing today, I
was doing 50 years ago. And they still haven't got it right.'
His happy tinkering would stand him in good stead when
hairdressing lost its appeal. In the early Eighties, Ward, with
his canny eye for a good business deal, bought an extruder a
system for manufacturing plastic cross-sections from ICI. It
was a huge thing and took up too much space to be attractive to
most buyers, but Ward thought it a bargain, installed it in his
factory, and got tinkering. At this point the tale gets a bit
confused. Ward is 76, after all, and his chronology isn't always
chronological. But after something to do with ICI wanting a
plastic for Citroλn bonnets, Ward ended up with a failed
extruded material that 'came out as scraps. We granulated it,
stuck it in a bin and left it there.' That was that, until
August 22 1985, when a British Airtours plane on the way to
Corfu failed to take off at Manchester Airport and caught fire.
For Ward, it was life-changing. 'It interested me because it was
an air disaster on the ground, and because it was the smoke and
toxicity that killed people, not the fire. Fifty-five people
died in 40 seconds. We thought we'd like to find something that
doesn't burn very much, that would be useful.'
Ward began making up teaspoonfuls of 'stuff' in a food mixer.
He christened the material 'gubbins,' and mixed and blended and
mixed and blended some more: 'I was making up to 20 formulations
a day.' Eventually, he got a few he liked, extruded them into
sheet form and tested them with a blowtorch. 'I just thought,
"well it's better than we ever expected. It's better than it
needs to be."'
It was better than better. The piece of gubbins had resisted
2,500 C of heat aimed at it by the torch, and stayed cool enough
to touch. Other experiments holding a torched piece of gubbins
up to the face; holding up a sheet with a hand behind it
produced similar results. Ward, a completely untrained amateur
inventor, seemed to have invented a material that resisted heat
and also cooled it. If it was for real, it was the best thermal
barrier the world had yet seen, and its possibilities were
limitless. Fire-resistant uniforms; better fire doors; safer
furniture. Laser-resistant tanks and weaponry; more efficient
missile nose cones. It could coat launch sites for vertical
take-off aircraft and spacecraft.
So this, thought the Wards, was it. Chemical companies would
batter down their doors in desperation to license the invention,
they would be wildly wealthy, and more importantly, the world,
with this new, stunningly efficient fire retardant, would be a
safer place for everyone. And nothing happened. There were tests
carried out at ICI by a contact in one of the labs, in which the
still unnamed material passed the UL94 (VO) test involving a
calibrated Bunsen burner flame with ease. Ward thought then
that 'if it were in ICI labs right now it'd be worth 10 million
quid.' But talks fell through. 'I know now it's because they
were working on Victrex,' says Ward, inviting me to look it up.
(It's a 'high-performance thermoplastic', but not
revolutionary.) Derision was also a factor. Ward has often been
compared to the northern factory worker played by Alec Guinness
in the 1951 film The Man in the White Suit. Guinness invents a
material which repels dirt, and no one takes him seriously. Ward
could sympathise. 'They laughed at me at first. But they take me
At this point the chronology falters again. There were talks
with British Aerospace, set up by 'a guy called Fred'. There
were other talks with 'guys from a big international company'. I
want more details, but there are none: Ward is expansive and
unfailingly courtly, but can be elusive. He's 'a true English
eccentric', the defence journalist Pamela Pohling-Brown wrote of
him recently. Perhaps that's why our meeting takes place in the
slightly odd surroundings of a meeting room in a Hartlepool
primary school, along with the soundtrack of children playing
and a fire alarm to add excitement. Perhaps that's also why he
decided to call his product Starlite, because his eight-year-old
granddaughter thought it was a good name.
The talks collapsed, but other talk continued to circulate,
reaching the studios of Tomorrow's World. In early 1990,
presenter Peter McCann introduced viewers to Starlite by means
of an egg. Ward shows me the first videoed test of the
oxyacetylene torch meeting a Starlite-coated hen's egg. Not only
did a Starlite coating prevent the egg from combusting, it was
also an astonishingly efficient insulator, as McCann
demonstrated by cracking the egg, after five minutes of it being
torched, to reveal a completely raw yolk. There are other
thermal barriers, the presenter said, but none that resist heat
and yet give off no toxic fumes, and can be easily moulded.
The defence establishment was watching. In July that year, Ward
was invited to the British Atomic Weapons Establishment at
Foulness, and the egg went nuclear. 'They'd been trying to get
something to withstand a nuclear flash for 45 years, and we did
it in five minutes.' Ward was reluctant to take part at first.
'I was happy with my egg. It was just a challenge and I didn't
want to lose.' This was a different league. Starlite-coated eggs
were subjected to light-energy sources that simulated a nuclear
flash, equivalent to a temperature of 10,000 C. 'They did it
twice and it was still there. Charred, but intact.' The Foulness
equipment couldn't keep up. 'I said to one scientist, "Are we
doing all right?", and he burst out laughing. He said,
"Normally, we do a test every couple of hours because we have to
wait for it to cool down. We're doing it every 10 minutes, and
it's sat there laughing at us."' Most materials vaporise beyond
2,000 C. Pure carbon, which has the highest melting point of all
elements, melts at 3,500 C. Starlite was withstanding
temperatures and forces that physics and thermodynamics dictated
it shouldn't. Even with tests from unquestionable authorities
like AWE, people were sceptical. 'Some people called me a
shyster. But they are blinkered. We've got video: We can show
In tests at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in
Malvern, Starlite was pulsed with lasers that would normally
have burned through polymer. Instead, as Pohling-Brown reported
in a widely-read article in International Defence Review in
1993, 'Starlite showed little damage to the surface, merely
small pits with the approximate diameter of the beam and with
little evidence of melting.' Professor Keith Lewis, who led the
RSRE tests, confirms that Starlite 'had unique properties which
appeared to be very different to other forms of thermal barrier
material available at the time.' It wasn't clear how Starlite
worked: was it diffusing the heat? Absorbing it? Repelling it?
'Keith Lewis told me that it does all sorts of things,' says
Ward. 'It's very complex. Millions of things are happening all
After that, the phones never stopped ringing. Ward may have
been a canny businessman, but the thousands of aspiring
investors were overwhelming. Greenbury came on board, and Ward
'separated the men from the boys' by insisting on a
confidentiality agreement and £8,000 paid upfront. Keeping the
formula secret was paramount, to the point of refusing to patent
it. 'Everyone said they would invest and could they have a
sample. No, they couldn't.' Visitors to the factory were
deliberately diverted from Starlite by loads of other material
left lying around. The formula was known only by Ward and his
immediate family, though Pohling-Brown reported that it included
'up to 21 organic polymers and copolymers, and small quantities
of ceramics'. 'It was put about that we never wrote it down but
that's not true. I just didn't tell anybody.'
In fact, Ward let a sample out of his sight only once. In June
1991, a sample was sent to White Sands atomic weapons testing
site in New Mexico, in the care of the SAS, and subjected to a
simulated nuclear onslaught. 'It was classed as the biggest bang
in town. I've seen a video [on which] it shredded forest to
sawdust, rolled some tanks around, stripped an aircraft into
pieces.' But Starlite survived. Further tests at Foulness had
subjected it to the force of 75 Hiroshimas, and it survived
that, too. NASA publicly raved about its potential, with
spokesman Rudi Narangor revealing that 'We have done a lot of
we know all the tremendous possibilities that
this material has.' And yet still no agreement was signed.
'Maurice,' says Greenbury, 'is a one-man band. He's an inventor,
and he has an unusual way of looking at things. It has proved to
be very difficult to deal with large companies. There hasn't
been a meeting of minds.'
Ward's conditions were unusual. He wouldn't sign
confidentiality agreements, which made government and defence
companies uncooperative. In joint ventures, he insisted on
keeping 51 per cent. 'If they'd wanted to buy it outright, they
could have had it. But they always wanted a licence, and if they
wanted that they had to sign an agreement that says they won't
plagiarise or reverse engineer. If they don't sign that, they
get a sample and then they reverse engineer and why would they
bother to get a licence?' This was why NASA never signed up.
It's why BAE didn't, or Boeing, or the dozens of other
corporations and military establishments who got somewhere in
negotiations but never to the end.
'Maurice's concern about confidentiality is a legitimate
concern,' says Greenbury. Ward claims that two samples have been
stolen, and countless attempts made. His talk might sound
paranoid a newspaper article that was 'squashed by the
government'; a computer hack that removed documents from his
computer; break-ins at his office but the stakes were high
enough for such claims to be believable. Greenbury, the sober
lawyer, thinks 'some people might have been enormously tempted
to find out the secret.'
But Greenbury also thinks that Starlite's potential has been,
so far, its biggest handicap. 'It's difficult to think of
another invention that is bigger in its implications. If it had
been less important, I think it would have been much easier.'
Ward certainly believes in his product, claiming publicly that
it could have prevented the space shuttle disasters. 'Starlite
has a Q-value [an energy absorption rating] of 2,470. The space
shuttle tiles have a Q-value of 1.' Not only that, but because
Starlite is so lightweight 1mm thick, compared to 75mm for the
space tiles it's actually '2,470 x 75 times better'.
For Greenbury, the past few years have been Ward's wilderness
ones. Publicity stopped when Ward entered into talks with Boeing
in the late Nineties (and, according to Ward, involved
researching using Starlite to protect Air Force One from a
nuclear flash). They were almost successful. Contracts were
drawn up, though no figures were written down. 'They used x and
y on the documents, but figures were being bandied about of
between a hundred million and half a billion.' (Greenbury, when
asked to put a price on Starlite, thinks it 'incalculable'.)
Negotiations collapsed, says Ward, because Boeing got into
trouble (there were accusations of industrial espionage and the
CEO was forced to resign). He surfaced from Boeing to find that
no one was knocking on his door any more. 'Boeing asked us not
to talk to anybody else. It was a huge mistake, because it
stopped all the opposition coming to us, too.' He sounds
resigned 'It's quite a tale of woe, isn't it?' but also
somewhat a changed man.
The secrecy will ease, up to a point. He will apply for
patents, for a start. His rigid business practices have also
softened, he says. Now he just wants to market it. 'We were used
to selling a ton of this here and there. But this got too big
for us.' Now, he's keeping things simple. There is still
secrecy, in the form of ongoing negotiations with an Indian
company to make an unnamed product (according to Greenbury) and
with an airline manufacturer (according to Ward). There is still
invention, in the form of a hollow-core Starlite-coated
fire-door which weighs 25kg, compared to the usual 70-80kg: 'And
it doesn't leak halogens all the time, like most doors.' His
concrete plans aren't grand he wants to get a local
manufacturer to make the doors but the door might be grander,
being a response to criticism that his invention is so
profoundly important, he should have given it to the world long
ago. 'A lot of people have been saying that I'm a rotten prat
and that I'm greedy and I should give it to the world.' Other
critics have objected to his talks with defence companies.
'That's one of the reasons I've tried to stay keeping hold of
things. I've said it often enough that we'd like to give
protection but not to cause devastation.'
Ward promises great things are imminent. His website is still a
one-page affair bearing a picture of his granddaughter
harness-racing 'because I liked the picture'. But he's now
posting test results and videos on a new blog. There are talks
under way with an unnamed major aircraft manufacturer, and
Greenbury is hopeful that the Indian negotiations will actually
succeed. 'After 20 years, perhaps I'm being too optimistic, but
I would really like to see this commercialised in Maurice's
In the small meeting room in that Hartlepool primary school,
Ward asks if he's told me enough. He phones later, asking if I
have more questions (and worries that President Obama is at risk
because he doesn't have Starlite on Air Force One). He wants to
get his story across, again, despite the wilderness years. He's
not bitter. 'We just followed a route. It was all going to
happen.' He's back to working on new Starlite formulations.
There will be more tests, more news, more publicity, he says.
'The interest is there,' he says, 'and growing.' And with that,
he drives me to the station in a modest car, a man in a blue
suit who could still change the world, one Starlite-coated egg
at a time.
Peter McCann -- Tomorrow's World Video --
[ Website Under Construction ]
Test results from 1989...
STARLITE FIRE TESTS
Ward and his 'starlite' were on 20/20 here in the states.
After that appearance, a rep from DuPont came out to meet him
across the pond. He caught the guy trying to get away with
a sample by stuffing it down his pants. (big surprise)...
Obviously some back room deal was struck long ago....because
he's still alive, I believe, and the stuff's nowhere to be found
in the public domain.
Maybe not too weird. Remember that guy from (maybe) Britain that
said on TV that he had made this special thermal insulation that
was cheap, anomolously high-temp resistant, and made with
"things found in a grocery store" (he said with a twinkle in his
eye)? He would take his white goo from a mayo jar and paste it
to an egg, wet. Then torch the hell out of it and the egg was
fine. He said that military were looking at it, and they said
they couldn't crack what it was made of even with spectroscopy
of whatever kind. Never heard anything more about it. Well, I
may, or may not, have made some on my porch in college.
OK, so here's what I was mucking with that evening on the
porch: A propane torch (cheap and cheesey Bernz-O-matic like),
a [probably alumina, white as snow] refractory brick tray used
for electronic parts manufacture like ferrites and ceramic
resistors or some like stuffs, "20 Mule Team" Borax [Hydrated
sodium borate], Table Salt [sodium chloride], Sodium Hydroxide
[aka: lye, caustic soda, sodium hydrate], Flint Glass Rod
(and/or) Soda Glass Rod (and/or) Borosilicate Glass Rod.
I was just making molten balls of stuff and one of the
balls of stuff crystalized before my eyes and would not melt.
This would be no biggy, but for the fact that when I took it
to my metal sculpture class and torched it with the
oxygen/acetylene torch and the little ball of stuff would not
melt even after I had a pool of this [probably alumina]
firebrick under the flame. Never have I seen anything hold up
to a flame like that before or since. I feel like an idiot,
but I don't know which items from the above list I had mixed
together and I just blew it off for the longest time.
If it really is similar to what the ol' Brit was making I
see why he had the twinkle in his eye... everything I used can
be found in some form within a grocery store. Be it the Borax
from the launrdy section, the "Red Devil" Lye, the various
glass types from everything from light bulbs to pickle jars,
Table Salt, or even if the alumina brick got in on the
reaction, it can be found floating around in one or a hundred
fixtures of machines and lights.
Being that I have almost everything for this test and
absolutely no content on my website, I hope someone beats me
to it and finds that it is a useful substance. Poke me in the
forehead if you think I should do it and post my results on my
Thanks fer listening, RR
Ryan A. Reynolds <ryanreynolds (at sign) cheesemagnet (dot)
Lincoln City, OR USA - Wednesday, March 09, 2005 at 02:15:56