October 20, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

The remarkable story of mysterious polymer Starlite, and how we may never know its full potential ...


In 1993, an episode of Tomorrow’s World (the once popular BBC science and technology television programme) opened with a close-up of an intense blue flame heating an egg. The welding torch was working hard against the egg’s shell, producing temperatures of 1200 °C, yet the egg appears normal and unscorched. The presenter leaves it under the torch’s glare for a few more minutes, then extinguishes the flame and picks the egg up. He flashes us a knowing smile, and cracks it into a glass bowl. It is completely raw.

The egg had been coated in Starlite, a complex polymer of 21 ingredients that is incredibly resistant to heat, even surviving nuclear blasts and temperatures of 10,000°C. It is lightweight, releases no toxic fumes when heated, and can come as a liquid, paste, or solid moulded into any form. In short, it is remarkable. But the truly remarkable thing about Starlite is its discovery.

Maurice Ward invented Starlite over 25 years ago but neither went to university nor had any formal scientific training. He’d once worked for a chemical company, but only as a forklift truck driver, and for the majority of his life he made a living as a hairdresser in a quiet Yorkshire town. Yet he was an inventor. In his spare time he experimented with chemicals in his workshop to develop new hair dyes.

Then, on 22 August 1985, the Manchester flight disaster occurred. As a Corfu-bound plane prepared for take-off its engine caught fire and 55 passengers died. Not from burns, but from inhaling toxic smoke. At that time aeroplanes were not required to have fireproof panels. Ward felt that such a disaster could have been avoided and this prompted him to create a fire-resistant plastic that would not release toxic fumes when burned.

By Easter the following year, he hit upon his first major success and took the new material to be tested by a friend who worked in a chemical factory. It withstood their tests, but the factory boss did not want to be bothered and told Ward to leave. Disheartened, Ward threw his creation in a cupboard where it remained for several years. Nevertheless, he continued to concoct complex compounds in a food blender and test them under a blowtorch flame. Eventually, Starlite was born.

But without a science degree, Ward struggled to get people to take him seriously. So he began to demonstrate the wonders of Starlite himself. Tomorrow’s World noticed Ward’s enthusiasm and his appearance on the show became a pivotal point in Starlite’s story. Starlite quickly gained the attention of the public and scientific scepticism began to wane. The former hairdresser from Hartlepool had accomplished something military organisations had spent many years and millions of pounds trying to create: a non-toxic plastic that did not burn. Soon, however, Starlite would exceed even its creator’s expectations.

The Atomic Weapons Establishment in the UK tested its resistance to extreme heat, which the polymer survived unscathed. NATO’s test centre then exposed it to simulated nuclear blasts of 70 kilocalorie forces (the equivalent of 70 Hiroshima explosions).

Ward was bombarded with offers from companies wanting to buy Starlite, but he became more and more reluctant to let the recipe go. He refused to sell it to Boeing for less than a multi-million pound sum. He refused to get it patented in fear of someone stealing the recipe. He refused to send further samples away to be tested. Sadly, in 2011, with Starlite’s composition very much still a mystery, Maurice Ward died.

Several years later and still nobody has come forward demonstrating knowledge of Starlite’s fabrication process. Although a tribute to the power of DIY scientists, it is a sad realisation that the secrets of this potentially revolutionary material may have died with its creator.