Nanotechnology: It’s getting bigger

Breaking the barriers to accepting—and selling—nano innovations in specialty fabrics markets.

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There has been increasing momentum in recent years in the use of nanotechnology to provide textile products with new and enhanced properties, such as stain and water repellence, flame retardance, antimicrobial properties, UV protection, abrasion resistance, odor absorption and insect repellence. With such wide-ranging and importance performance properties, it’s not surprising that nanotechnology has been identified as a key technology for the future of textiles.

While the textile market was one of the first to manufacture nanotechnology-based finished goods, only a small percentage of all products in the textile market incorporate nanotechnology. There are several reasons for this low penetration: high costs associated with nano-enabled products, limitations in obtaining some of the functions to meet market requirements, questions about safety and lack of knowledge among consumers and companies about nano benefits and potential.

“One of the things that has to happen before commercialization can occur is the consumer has to understand it. ‘This shirt or this textile is a nanotextile’ doesn’t mean anything to them. It’s the benefits that nanotechnology can do for them. That’s the real communication point,” says Ben Favret, founder, president and CEO of Vestagen Technical Textiles LLC in Orlando, Fla., which produces Vestex™ high-tech garments from nano-enhanced fabrics that are breathable, antimicrobial and fluid repellent.

Vestagen’s strategy is to launch its Vestex product in the healthcare market with a focus on helping to protect healthcare workers and reduce microbial contamination. The medical market is different from other markets in that it is highly regulated, and therefore data driven, and it is reliant on peer-reviewed, evidence-based studies that support the product’s effectiveness. That’s important, says Favret, because once you get the data out there, it also gives rise to other markets that rely on documented medical evidence for a product’s safety and protection.

OSHA is already looking at how to protect health care workers and the community from infectious conditions and other contaminants,” says Favret. “Through the pervasiveness of nano-enhanced fabrics and a call for new standards, it can transform the medical market and then pave the way for wide-scale adoption and commercialization in other markets.”

After just one year, Vestex garments have been adopted by several large universities and heathcare facilities in a number of states. Vestagen’s research data also translates to the child care, athletic, food processing and service worker industries.

Steps to commercialization

Charlie Chow, founder and chief technical officer at Nano Group Holdings Ltd. in Hong Kong, agrees that education is the next step in commercializing nano-enhanced fabrics. The low profit margins of textile production and a generally conservative textile industry have also been barriers to getting nano-material textile products to market—until now.

“We started promoting eight years ago, but it’s been difficult. We approached fabric manufacturers but they didn’t want to start something they didn’t understand and couldn’t see how the nano materials might increase their profit margins,” says Chow.

Nano Group Holdings provides nano-treated fabric and garments for casual and athletic apparel, uniforms and home furnishings. The company has revised its marketing strategy, targeting brand-name companies because they have the marketing resources and credibility with consumers to clearly demonstrate nanotechnology’s functional benefits.

“When you buy a pair of pants or a suit, you will not check that it is UV protected or antimicrobial, but you can see it is liquid repellent because you can see the water roll off,” says Chow. “It will take big companies and serious marketing to educate [end product] customers about what is on their hangtag so they understand it’s a nano material creating the end function.”

The company is also focusing heavily on sustainability, which Chow believes is the real target in the textile industry. “Consumers are aware of the sustainability issue. If they can be educated that the treated fabric in their garment does not require as much water, detergent or energy to clean it, then they will see the benefits,” says Chow.

Nano Group Holdings has had success with this approach in the hotel and health care industries, which have huge laundry operations and can benefit from the conservation savings. The company’s studies have shown that its nano-treated fabrics can cut water and energy consumption in half and reduce detergent need by 90 percent.

The company’s oil-, stain- and liquid-repellent finish can survive up to 50 washing cycles and the treatments are all biodegradable. The volume of chemicals leaching into water courses, Chow says, is miniscule. Compare that with the quantities of bleach, detergents and other toxic chemicals thrown down the drains of households around the world.

Accepting implementation

Even with innovative commercialization strategies, it is not easy for small- and medium-sized businesses, which dominate the textile industry, to access what is happening at the research level. That can complicate the implementation of new developments, say industry sources.

“Nano-manufacturing will be a reality when the manufacturers will embrace some of the new knowledge that is being generated in the labs and universities. Usually it takes several years for the new grads to be hired and the new knowledge to be transferred to the companies, and improvements made of the products,” says Professor Juan P. Hinestroza, head of the Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., which studies the use of nano science to modify the performance characteristics of fibers and textiles. Moreover, he adds, you can achieve some of the same functionality that end-product customers want using traditional methods and micron-sized materials.

“The advantage of the nanometer scale is that you will use less of those active materials or use them in a more efficient manner, so you can optimize the use of the material and have better control over the outcome,” says Hinestroza. “It allows you to produce better products with less of the active ingredients in a more effective way. You’ll reduce the cost and perhaps achieve a better function and can increase the sale price of the product.”

The potential for better products and profits from nanotechnology is attractive, but the upfront production costs and hiring knowledgeable workers can be prohibitive, especially when costs in general are rising.

“Many potential new manufacturers of nanotechnology are not willing to make new capital investments in order to enter into the nano realm. Also, with the cost of all raw materials going up (cotton is up 100 percent this year), manufacturers are finding it increasingly difficult to incorporate innovation,” says Timothy Skedzuhn, vice president of the Textile Business Unit at NanoHorizons Inc., in Bellefonte, Pa.

According to www.nanohorizons.com, “NanoHorizons was founded in 2002 by a team of scientists from Pennsylvania State University, as part of the Centre County Industrial Corp. incubator program … to develop and commercialize nanomaterial-enabled products based upon an extensive intellectual property portfolio.” The company invents, designs and manufactures advanced nanoscale silver additives under the SmartSilver® brand that is EPA-registered and Oëko-Tex® approved. Among other things, it provides antimicrobial and anti-odor attributes to a variety of textile products.

“If consumers or industry are looking for these types of value-added features, we believe we are the most versatile and cost-effective way of achieving this,” says Skedzuhn. “We are focused on textile products that require and search out innovation and added performance value.”

Skedzuhn says medical textiles is a primary area that the company is exploring, but it is also working in such areas as paints, coatings, extruded and molded plastic parts, upholstery and carpet, where it is seeing good sales growth.

Cost is not a barrier for a new nanotechnology being rolled out at the end of the year by Xennia Technology Ltd. in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, U.K. The company is launching an inkjet printing system that uses a nano-enhanced decoration and coating solution, which allows the deposition of coatings with dirt repellent, water repellent and fire retardant properties.

Economical nano printing

“We’re the only people who have an inkjet self-cleaning nano-particle coating. It actually shows better self-cleaning properties than coatings deposited by conventional methods,” says Dr. Tim Phillips, marketing manager at Xennia Technology. “We think flags and awnings are very compelling markets. That’s a key target area for this technology. Certainly the technology has economic benefits across the whole textile industry, for decorating and finishing in a precise, low-cost way.”

Inkjet technology permits very precise fluid constitutions and accurately deposits exact amounts of materials, reducing waste and lowering costs. The machine itself will not cost more than other machines on the market, says Phillips, and the running costs will be significantly lower. The company also hopes that it can address some of the challenges of commercialization by working with an established partner in the textile printing market, Reggiani Macchine S.p.A. in Bergamo, Italy, which will sell the machine based on Xennia’s technology, starting in Europe.

“There are always challenges in educating the customer. We need to be consistent about making sure they understand the benefits,” says Phillips. “Realistically, it will be quite a significant amount of time before nano inks replace traditional inks, but once everyone understands it and has a chance to try it, it will rapidly gain traction in the marketplace.”

Barb Ernster is a freelance writer based in Fridley, Minn.

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