From left, UC Merced engineering students Moataz Dahabra, Luis Soto and Christopher Toy (along with David Sagastume, not pictured here) have spent a semester working to recreate a mysterious flame-retardant material known as "Starlite." (Kerry Klein/Valley Public Radio)
Thirty years ago, a BBC program called Tomorrow’s World captivated viewers with a seemingly simple demonstration: A blowtorch pointed directly at an egg. Its shell slowly blackens, but it neither cracks nor erupts in flames. “This is no ordinary egg,” warns presenter Peter Macann with a smile.
Macann explains that the egg has been coated in “a remarkable new plastic,” something that looks akin to a white, putty-like paste. Macann strolls to stage right to discuss fireproofing technology in airplanes, and after three minutes, he returns to see what’s come of the egg.
Where it was exposed to the flame, the white coating has charred and crusted over, but the egg otherwise appears untouched. “[The egg] hasn’t broken up at all, and you can see here it’s glowing red hot,” Macann explains.
He then turns the blowtorch off, picks up the egg with his bare hand, and cracks it over a glass bowl. It appears as raw as any fresh egg, runny yolk and all.
Broadcast in 1990, this episode of Tomorrow’s World catapulted this mysterious white coating, a super-fire-retardant material dubbed Starlite, into the international spotlight. But 20 years later, its secretive inventor died, supposedly without ever sharing his formula.
Now, students at UC Merced are joining the ranks of enthusiasts around the world trying to recreate it. “Just figuring out how to make things work when everything's kind of against you, I think that's what I like most about this project,” says undergraduate engineering student Moataz Dahabra.
The inventor, Maurice Ward, was a complete unknown, a British hairdresser who claimed to have concocted Starlite in his kitchen using a combination of common household ingredients.
He said he had begun experimenting with fire-retardant materials in 1985, after 55 passengers perished in an airplane that caught on fire on a runway at Britain’s Manchester Airport.
Ward showed off his invention on television programs in the U.S. and the U.K., but remained notoriously tight-lipped about what was actually in it. “I’m perfectly happy saying it is what it is and it does what it does,” he said enigmatically in a mid-90s interview on Dateline NBC.
And despite supposedly drawing attention from big players like NASA and the aerospace giant Boeing, Ward never made a business partnership or even patented Starlite before dying in 2011.
Today, however, the internet is full of amateur chemists offering their own Starlite recipes, like Youtube user NightHawkInLight, who holds a thin layer of putty in his palm then points a blowtorch directly at it.
Then there’s Keith Lewis, a retired scientist with the British government who had worked with Maurice Ward and is shown in a recent BBC documentary taking his own crack at the material.
The idea of Starlite is tantalizing. If a thin coating could protect a raw egg from a direct flame of thousands of degrees, what could it do for space shuttles, airplanes, or even homes built in wildfire-prone areas? That’s what captivated Moataz Dahabra.
“You could literally spray it on your car, spray it on your house,” says Dahabra, who’s part of a team of graduating seniors at UC Merced who’ve been trying to recreate the formula in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“Whatever you want, spray it on, to make something that's fireproof. That's one of the biggest applications and selling points for it.”
Over the course of the semester, Dahabra and his teammates say they created over 150 different recipes for Starlite. On the day I visit, they’re putting batch 62 through the blowtorch test. They’ve molded it into a little white circle about a half inch thick. It looks pretty underwhelming, like a doughy uncooked biscuit.
Under the flame, however, it fares far better than any bread product presumably could. The top, exposed to temperatures reaching nearly 4,000 deg. Fahrenheit, blackens, puffs up, and crusts over, kind of like a marshmallow that fell into a campfire.
But after a full minute, an electronic device known as a thermocouple reveals the bottom has barely risen above 100 deg. Fahrenheit. It’s hardly warm at all, and still soft and moist to the touch.
The material’s key property is called intumescence, which results in that puffy crust that forms where the sample comes into contact with the flame. The crust serves as a buffer of air that essentially insulates the rest of the material from the heat. Lots of intumescent paints and resins are now on the market, though none quite capture the magic of Starlite.
These students haven't quite captured it yet, either. Although Maurice Ward hinted at 21 ingredients in his original formula, the students so far have confirmed only seven. Unlike Ward, however, the team is open about what’s in their formulation.
“So we have the normal kitchen corn starch, baking soda, and then we have a gallon of school glue,” says teammate Christopher Toy, gesturing to a cardboard box that could have easily fit in to a kitchen pantry. “All of our mixtures need those.”
From another box he pulls out some cleaning, gardening and painting supplies, including phosphorus and Borax, all of which they blend together using a kitchen hand mixer.
The students’ greater objective, however, is to develop a rigorous, methodical process for testing Starlite recipes—like setting a standard temperature, humidity and technique for mixing various formulations, and performing the same tests under the same precise conditions each time.
“It’s very small steps, it’s progression, it’s attention to details,” says Alejandro Gutierrez, an engineering professor at UC Merced and the faculty advisor on this project. “To anyone who’s not an engineer it’s very boring.”
Boring, perhaps, but a replicable method could lend Starlite some scientific legitimacy. Because of its mysterious, even mythical history, not everyone buys into the promise of Starlite.
Many scientists believe the material itself a flat-out hoax, like one materials science professor at a well-known university who told me, “there are no materials out there that have these magical properties that they refer to.”
But Thomas Peev of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory argues those theories no longer matter. “Looking at this problem is real engineering,” says Peev. “It is actual science that is being done right now, and it’s not just a fairy tale.”
He’s the engineer who coordinated the UC Merced project, part of a larger program to connect the aerospace research institution with local undergraduates.
But the story of the original Starlite may not be over. Two companies affiliated with Maurice Ward’s family now claim they’re carrying on his legacy—one that allegedly bought the recipe from the Wards, and another now producing a similar formula created by one of his daughters—though neither company has filed any patents and only one has produced a video purportedly showing off its formulation.
The Boeing Company owns a patent resembling descriptions of Starlite, though a representative told me me it has no connection to the material.
The UC Merced students, however, aren’t too concerned about other efforts to create Starlite. Moataz Dahabra says there’s more than enough room in the market for competition, and maybe even collaboration.
“We're just increasing the circle, that collaborative circle, which I think might help everybody out,” he says.
Moataz and his classmates graduated last Saturday. But they’re leaving their methods to next year’s class so hopefully they can come a few steps closer to Starlite.