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Bayer produces blast-resistant safety glass for U.S. embassies

| Thursday, July 10, 2014, 11:09 p.m.
Robert A. Pyles, technical marketing manager at Bayer Corp. The same plastic used for CDs and DVDs can provide security protection for business and even blast-resistant facades for a new generation of American embassies, says Bob Pyles, a chemist at Bayer. The company’s MaterialScience unit in Robinson says it is working with the State Department to apply a version of polycarbonate plastic in use for 60 years to the need for safety in diplomatic offices and moves to build more attractive embassies. Besides CDs and DVDs, the plastic, called Makrolon, is used in many products ranging from food containers to auto headlights. Bayer believes a thicker laminate version can provide protection for embassies and for businesses uses like bank and ticket windows, jewelry stores, taxi cabs and safe rooms.

A Bayer chemist foresees myriad uses for the plastic in CDs and DVDs, including security protection for businesses and blast-resistant facades for American embassies.

Bayer's MaterialScience unit in Robinson is trying to sell the State Department on a version of the polycarbonate plastic in use for 60 years that it says will protect buildings such as diplomatic offices. Bayer sees a major opportunity.

The plastic, known as Makrolon, is used in dozens of products ranging from food containers to auto headlights.

Bayer believes a thicker laminate version of the plastic that it sells to protect bank and ticket windows, jewelry stores, taxicabs and safe rooms can provide protection for buildings and embassies.

“We manufacture a single-pane version for security in bank windows and taxis,” said Bob Pyles, the chemist who formulated the thick laminate with blast-resistant properties. “It existed for ballistic protection but not for blast protection. Customers came to us and asked why we don't protect a whole building.”

The blast-resistant version, 1 34 inches thick, is half the weight of glass and twice as strong. It reflects shock waves back toward the source by bending but not breaking, testing by Bayer has shown, said Michael T. Gallagher, director of public sector business at MaterialScience.

Debate about security in embassies heightened when Islamic terrorists in 2012 attacked the U.S. outposts in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

“We are collaborating with the government, looking at important projects like embassies,” Gallagher said.

“We are pleased with their reaction so far,” said Roger Rumer, Material­Science's security sector leader.

The State Department broke ground for a U.S. Embassy in London in November, a modern glass structure with a reported $1 billion budget. Bayer's Rumer said they believe its polycarbonate facade will be “significantly less expensive” than current construction.

A spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations could not be reached for comment.

In the United States, building owners and tenants have wanted protection from bomb blasts since 9/11, Darrell Barker, vice president for explosion hazards at ABS Consulting, told Glass Magazine in a recent article. He declined to comment on Thursday when reached by the Tribune-Review.

“Flying glass generated by breaking windows accounts for the largest numbers of injuries in vehicle-bombing incidents, on the order of 70 (percent) to 80 percent in many cases. Glass represents typically the weakest component of a building,” Barker told the magazine.

The General Services Administration requires new federal buildings to be blast-resistant, he said.

A transparent facade that Bayer tested would look much like the glass-enclosed PPG Place building Downtown, Gallagher said.

Building aesthetics came into play in 2009, when Secretary of State John Kerry, then a U.S. senator, said the country has “some of the ugliest embassies I've ever seen.”

A State Department report on diplomatic security last year said American diplomatic facilities “rank as one of the most threatened class of buildings in the world.” The report said such facilities overseas “should present a visually attractive representation of our country and the democratic ideals it stands for.”

Bayer is trying to sell the government its solution.

Rumer said a government report shows that more than 80 embassies need to be brought up to safety standards. After a series of terrorist attacks — Tehran in 1979, Beirut in 1983 and Nairobi in 1998 — the government adopted an embassy design with three variations, depending on size, “which were secure but not at all attractive, with small windows supported by really thick walls,” Rumer said. The windows utilized glass and Bayer polycarbonate.

Bayer would improve aesthetics and safety to replace windows with “a transparent facade and material that is more capable,” Rumer said.

Bayer's polycarbonate is manufactured in thin sheets that can be molded. Sheets of the blast-resistant version would be glued together.

“Where such materials fail is in the interface between layers,” Gallagher said. “There is a lot of art in making it perfect.”

John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or joravecz@tribweb.com.

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