Radiant Ignition of Polyurethane Foam: The Effect of Sample Size: Fire Technology

Rory Hadden, Abubakar Alkatib, Guillermo Rein, José L. Torero

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although smouldering ignition of upholstery items remains a leading cause of residential fire deaths, relatively little research is conducted on the topic. An experimental investigation of the effect of sample size on the ignition and spread of smouldering and flaming in polyurethane foam under natural flow conditions is reported here. Polyurethane foam samples are used because this is a common material in modern, residential environments and one for which there exists significant quantities of previous experimental data in the literature. Samples of different square cross-section size and a fixed height of 150 mm are insulated on all sides except the top which is exposed to a radiant heat flux and is open to the air. Samples with side lengths of 50 mm, 100 mm, and 140 mm are studied. Ignition and spread dynamics are diagnosed using thirteen thermocouples located along the vertical centre line. The onset of smouldering ignition (13 kW/m2, 8 kW/m2 and 7kW/m2 for 50 mm, 100 mm and 140 mm sample sizes respectively) is observed at significantly lower heat fluxes that flaming (45 kW/m2, 32 kW/m2 and 30kW/m2 respectively). Critical heat fluxes for smouldering and flaming ignition increase with decreasing sample size, with smouldering ignition being significantly more sensitive to sample size than flaming ignition under the size range studied. Smouldering spread rates are measured in the range from 3 mm/min to 25mm/min and found to be a strong function of the heat flux and depth of the smoulder front. The effect of sample size on smouldering has been theoretically proposed before but this is the first time that this effect has been demonstrated experimentally for ignition. The fact that large samples result in the lowest critical heat flux could have implications for testing procedures and translation of results from small-scale testing to real-scale in the built environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalFire Technology
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2012


  • Ignition
  • Sample size
  • Smouldering
  • Transition to flaming
  • Cone calorimeter
  • Smoulder propagation


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