RMIT’s Kate Nguyen helps protect buildings from bushfires

With degrees in chemical engineering and materials engineering from Vietnam universities, followed by a doctorate in civil engineering from the University of Melbourne, Thuy Quynh Nguyen was inspired to use her expertise to limit bushfire damage to Australia’s rural homes.

Nguyen, often known as Kate, arrived in Australia in 2011 to study for her doctorate and she soon heard about the intense bushfires that explode across the nation in the summer months.

“When I saw the issues around bushfires, then it triggered me to think about a solution from a materials point of view, a construction point of view, because that is where my expertise is,” she says.

Now 38, and named in The Australian’s 2021 Research magazine as Australia’s top researcher in composite materials, Nguyen is developing a spray-on coating for rural buildings to help them resist the ravages of bushfires.

“I work on flame-retardant construction materials, also on construction technologies to increase the fire safety of the buildings,” she says, adding it is important to consider the fire safety of a structure as a whole, as well as assessing the fire safety of the individual construction elements.

The frequency and severity of bushfires has increased with climate change and they have become an increasing threat to lives, the environment and people’s homes. While devastating, bushfires often move quickly, and a rural building may only have to resist the heat and flames for a short time until the danger passes, Nguyen says.

“That’s why I came up with the idea of having an additional coating on top of the existing infrastructure – so that we can buy some more time, extend the time that structure can withstand that fire intensity.”

A senior lecturer at RMIT University and chief engineer at Cladding Safety Victoria, Nguyen is developing the fire-retardant coating for rural buildings as an independent project, sponsored by the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science foundation.

The coating she is working on differs from cladding. External cladding panels attached to buildings can be dangerous: the flammable cladding on the Grenfell building in London was blamed for spreading the fire that eventually led to the loss of 72 lives. The use of cladding in Australia has been widely criticised.

“If we look at the issues we have faced with cladding recently, we didn’t have a holistic view of the building,” Nguyen says, adding that while a façade can insulate a building and improve its thermal performance, fire safety concerns should always be of primary importance.

The ceramic-like coating she is developing as a fire retardant will sit flush on the walls of buildings and provide a protective outer shell, filling in any gaps in the building’s envelope to both fireproof it and increase thermal efficiency. Made from industrial and construction waste that would otherwise be sent to landfill, the coating is also sustainable.

Nguyen has already achieved success in reducing the heat and pressure needed to make the coating. Working with industry partners, she expects the fire-proof coating will be commercially available within a year.

“That is the other thing I always want to embed in the research I’m doing,” she says. “I don’t want to just create something that is safe, but that compromises the sustainability side of construction or visa versa. My passion is to bring fire safety and sustainability together.”

The Australian