Borates for Farm, Fire, and Forest

:: Sunday, January 15, 2017
In 1996, a U.S. Borax initiative created a dedicated technical and support staff in specialty chemicals to provide expertise and support to customers in agriculture, plastics, and forest products. Borates have always played an important role in all three areas, but the requirement for technical support, applications research, training, and customer service in those industries is significantly different from the levels pioneered by U.S. Borax for core industrial products such as Neobor® pentahydrate borax and boric acid. In addition, the worldwide marketplace for these industries is characterized by a multiplicity of customers and distributors rather than the relatively small number of end users in the traditional U.S. Borax client base.

To serve these markets better, chemical, engineering, production, and marketing disciplines within U.S. Borax were integrated under single leadership into specialist teams committed to improving crop production, preventing fire, and preserving timber. In each of these areas, U.S. Borax aimed to provide leading-edge expertise and service based on the practical application of borate products and technology.

Farms: Continuing growth, powered by micronutrient boron

Agricultural uses of borates started as a result of an observation in 1927: Field beans sprayed with borates in the laboratory to control insects grew more strongly than those in untreated, control pots. Since then, borates have been used to supplement crop nutrition throughout the world on a wide range of crops for industrial, food, and beverage use.

Boron is one of seven micronutrients, along with three secondary nutrients (calcium, magnesium, and sulphur) and three major nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) that are essential for all plant growth. Boron is essential for cell division and therefore root and shoot growth, and for the initiation of flowers, and hence fruit and seed. Some families of plants are more susceptible than others to boron deficiency. For example, sugar beet and the cabbage family have a particularly high need for boron nutrition, as do non-food plants from alfalfa to zinnias. Boron deficiency can be exacerbated by soil and climate conditions.

U.S. Borax provides specially formulated nutrients for different application stages and methods. Fertilizer borates include Granubor®, which has a particle size specially designed to be homogeneous with the ingredients of blended fertilizers; Fertibor®, which is intended for general purposes and for compound fertilizers where all granules are produced from a slurry; and Solubor®, used for boron-containing sprays that supplement the nutrition of crops during their growth.

Testing crops for warning signs of boron deficiency is an important agricultural practice, as procedures such as leaf analysis improve. Since boron is heavily implicated in formative plant tissue (meristem) development, its availability is very important in the vegetative growth phase, as well as during flowering. Lack of boron can lead to deformed and inefficient leaves, poor root development, poor photosynthesis (through leaf damage), poor fruiting, or poor seed production.

U.S. Borax maintains a global agronomic service to respond to worldwide inquiries. Since much of the research involves collaborative work with universities and institutes, an integrated system supports communication between academia and U.S. Borax to constantly add to crop-specific understanding of boron application in the field.

In the more than 50 years since it pioneered the world's first boron fertilizer, U.S. Borax has acquired practical experience over a huge range of crops, soils, climates, and agricultural contexts, but its services are crucially focused and augmented by a worldwide network of local distributors. These typically are major suppliers working within the farming community on a day-to-day basis. Their contribution is down-to-earth and fundamental. The Borax-distributor links are continually strengthened, and represent a partnership committed to improving agriculture regionally through the correct application of boron.

Fire: Continuing scourge, doused with zinc borate 

No smoke without fire; no fire without fuel.

Most of the materials that furnish the infrastructure of daily life are potential fuels like oil or gas. Wood, polymers, home furnishings, clothing, vehicle interiors, and most construction materials all have their burning points. That is why in the United States alone, some three million fires are reported each year causing 4,500 deaths, 29,000 injuries and an estimated total bill of $100 billion.

Plastics manufacturers must pay enormous attention to safety, and are subject to ever more stringent regulation and legislation. In an intensely competitive industry, they also have to control costs and improve quality. Working closely with polymer manufacturers, U.S. Borax can now prove that zinc borate is a product that, in most polymer systems, helps them reconcile these competing priorities. It makes not only for safer plastics but also for cost savings.

Firebrake® ZB, developed by U.S. Borax, is a unique product that acts as a multi-functional fire-retardant synergist. It enhances the effectiveness of existing fire-retardant systems, significantly reduces fumes and smoke, and functions efficiently at processing temperatures of up to 300°C. U.S. Borax also developed Firebrake products that are effective at still higher processing temperatures: Firebrake 500 and Firebrake 415.

Zinc borates perform as flame retardants; smoke and afterglow suppressants; anti-arcing agents; and promoters of char, which acts as a fire barrier and reduces heat transfer from flame to polymer. Zinc borates are effective—and cost-effective—both on their own (in certain polymers) and in conjunction with antimony oxide and/or halogen systems. The current cost of antimony, together with zinc borate's ability to act synergistically with bromine and chlorine is leading to increased use of Firebrake ZB. Cost reductions of 30% to 60% result in most cases.

With more than 30 years of research and development behind it, U.S. Borax experience and research data are at the service of plastics manufacturers across the world as they seek to develop new polymers, and devise ever more fire-resistant formulations at ever more competitive costs.

Forests: Continuing boon, strengthened with borates

U.S. Borax co-partners with the timber, construction, and pest control industries by researching, improving, and promoting wood preservation by means of borates. It has developed expertise in the pre-treatment of building timber, the remedial or in situ treatment of wood already in use, the insecticidal properties of borates, and the control of pathogenic fungus in growing forests.

Wood is one of the oldest construction materials known to man, yet its importance in this area continues to grow despite the availability of manmade materials. With a higher strength-to-weight ratio than steel, timber, wood, and other natural fiber products can be considered man's ultimate sustainable resource, harnessing the sun's energy during growth, and absorbing carbon dioxide from the environment rather than adding to it.

One of the perceived problems of wood and other natural fiber products, however, is their susceptibility to biodeterioration, and timber employed for structural or non-structural purposes is used in a range of environmental conditions which can expose it to the risk of fungal decay or insect attack. Wood preservation should be an essential part of the design specification of any structure, and borates are increasingly being chosen in situations where their broad spectrum of efficacy coupled with their low acute mammalian toxicity are considered benefits or advances in preservation technology. Where pre-treatment is not an integral part of the design, remedial treatment can be carried out, and pest control specialists supply this service in situ.

Borates also play a key role in the growth of fiber sources through their use as fertilizers and in their ability to prevent the destruction of living trees by controlling the fungal pathogen Heterobasidion annosum, which readily colonizes through the stumps produced during the forestry husbandry cycles of thinning and clear-felling.

U.S. Borax has more than 50 years of expertise in the treatment of timber across the world. The wood protection and preservation group of the specialties department has been created to focus this experience and technical expertise, and apply it in support of the natural fiber industries. The group manages and coordinates the commercial and technical activities of the global preservation business, and feeds experience and capabilities across international boundaries.

The wood protection and preservation group has a portfolio of products geared to servicing the market and individual customer requirements. It is the responsibility of the team to link products and processes to the fiber preservation techniques that best suit their needs. Specific products have been developed for highly specialized end uses: Tim-bor® DPT wood preservative; Tim-bor Insecticide; and a range of products for third-party formulation and other uses, including borax, boric acid, and Neobor.

Examples of product end use include protection of:
  • Timber frame housing and log homes
  • Engineered wood materials
  • Decorative and furniture products
  • Non-wood natural fiber products (hemp and flax products, straw board, sheep wool insulation)
  • Home environments, with remedial treatment against fungi and other wood-destroying organisms
Products are also used in customer product formulations and pest control products.

Borates have also created new uses for wood species that previously were considered of little value. For example, rubber trees that cease to deliver latex have traditionally been used for charcoal or fruit boxes. With
Tim-bor treatment, their extreme susceptibility to decay organisms is cured and they are now being used for the production of high-value decorative furniture.



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U.S. Borax, part of Rio Tinto, is a global leader in the supply and science of borates—naturally-occurring minerals containing boron and other elements. We are 1,000 people serving 650 customers with more than 1,800 delivery locations globally. We supply around 30% of the world’s need for refined borates from our world-class mine in Boron, California, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Learn more about Rio Tinto.

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