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Trends expand applications for nonwovens

Features, Markets | November 1, 2008 | By:

The same trends that are driving development in wovens are expanding applications for nonwovens.

According to Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar, supervisor of the nonwovens laboratory at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, the nonwoven industry is worth about $60 billion, most of it in disposables and semidurables. That is changing, however, driven in part by both mandates and preferences for sustainable products. Thirty years ago, he says, “we did not think that much on sustainability. Now it is a global citizen cause.”

Thirty years ago nonwovens meant “disposables,” such as baby diapers and medical and hygiene products, which still dominate the market. Ramkumar says it’s time for the industry to develop more durables, such as automobile carpeting and geotextiles used in road building, and semidurables, such as car filters—categories regarded as more environmentally responsible.

“If you want to make this industry grow, the nonwovens need to be durable,” Ramkumar says. But developing new durable products is not enough.The industry also needs to find sustainable solutions in materials, processes and costs.

“That’s where I think nonwovens should take the lead—developing sustainable technical products,” Ramkumar says. “The whole world is going to be there. Coming first is not it. Coming first with the product that the market will pay for, that’s the issue. The technology is 100 percent there to develop biofriendly material, but the material has to be tweaked to make it affordable. That is the challenge.”

Sustainability drives trends in nonwoven market

Dr. Behnam Pourdeyhimi, Klopman Distinguished Professor of textile materials and associate dean for industry research, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C., agrees that it’s all about performance and price. “Does the consumer really care if it’s woven or nonwoven?” Pourdeyhimi says. “They care about the performance, the functionality, the cost.”

So why not use jute, hemp, flax or cotton? Ramkumar says the answer is simple: there is no huge market, so there is no huge supply. Much more can be produced, and then the cost will come down.

“Nonwovens and technical textiles should work in harmony. The automobile industry, for example, does not care how a product is made. They don’t want to know. It’s our job to come up with an environmentally friendly material,” he says. “Sustainable disposable products and durables are the two legs on which the nonwoven industry should stand and start walking.”

Sustainability has driven another new market trend. Rory Holmes, president of INDA (the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry), says that there is a shortage of rayon, a product now made exclusively outside of the United States. As a result, manufacturers are using cotton in products that used to require foreign-made rayon. For example, when Costco launched its own brand of baby wipes, made out of a cotton blend, the wipes were so popular that sales moved from 17th to second place in just four months.

“That was a real wow,” Holmes says. Additional cotton/PET blended fabrics made with spunlace technology have been used for new Clorox® cleaning wipes, and are also being developed for industrial applications. “Our industry is certainly moving in the sustainability direction,” Holmes says. “It’s not a fad, it is a trend. Consumers will pay a little more for a sustainable product, and that drives it.”

Nonwoven industry moves into durables and semidurables

“It’s a very different and exciting time for nonwovens because we’re focusing on ‘what else?’” Pourdeyhimi says. He thinks nonwovens are already making the move into semidurables and durables, including a variety of automotive applications. “When you look at some of the new headliners that are being used—that fabric that looks like leather—behind that is always a nonwoven,” Pourdeyhimi says.

In the semidurables, the industry has developed “an absolutely phenomenal filter” using nanofibers. “They’re really taking market share away from paper membranes,” he says.

New products used for durables such as tents, awnings and other coated products will “go head-to-head with woven products,” he says. “With nonwovens, you’re looking for a unique solution. That’s what we do.”

New developments enhance nonwoven performance

Holmes says that the process can be simply summarized—raw material selection, web formation, bonding, and finishing—but within these four steps is a multitude of combinations, which makes “the difference between a diaper facing and a tent.”

“Nonwoven performance has improved on virtually all aspects of physical properties … The reality is that the possibilities are endless,” Holmes says.

He sees some of the most interesting new developments in lightweight materials. They have been difficult to manufacture because the web of the product “is pretty flimsy,” he says, but new techniques have made it easier to produce this lighter weight product, used primarily in auto parts as an insulator because of its good thermal and acoustic properties. “They can command a significant price for these,” he says.

With meaningful environmental mandates for car manufacturing already in place, nonwovens have even more incentive to head in that direction. “By 2015, 99 percent of the automobile has to be recycled in Europe,” Ramkumar says. And, according to Holmes, that transition is underway. “They’re replacing the fiberglass with a polyester that can be shredded, re-melted, pelleted and fed back into a spunbond machine.”

Companies develop products from recycled materials

Foss Manufacturing Co. LLC, Hampton, N.H., is among the companies responding to the call for recyclable products and has developed its own recycled fiber, which is used in-house and sold to other customers. Dave Rowell, executive vice president of sales for Foss, says Eco-fi is a polyester prime resin made exclusively from plastic drink bottles.

“In the last year and a half, we have converted 80 percent of our polyester production to recycled bottles,” Rowell says. The new product is “cost neutral,” he says, “but it’s the right thing to do.” Even though just 10 bottles are needed to make one pound of fiber, Foss is more concerned with availability than with cost effectiveness. With spotty mandatory recycling nationwide, Rowell thinks recycling legislation needs to be more widespread.

Applications for Eco-fi run from craft felts, to indoor-outdoor carpeting, to filtration materials and beyond.

Freudenberg Nonwovens Group, Durham, N.C., also has a a new recycled product. Lutradur® PCR is made from 92 percent recycled plastic drink bottles and is 100 percent recyclable, says Oscar Fontalvo, business segment manager. As with the original Lutradur fabrics, it is a thermal-bonded, spunbond polyester, and performs as well or better than the original, Fontalvo says. Lutradur was originally used primarily in automotive and commercial carpet tile applications, but has recently expanded into other markets, such as flooring, building, banners and billboards.

According to billboard industry experts, Lutradur PCR fabrics require 50 percent less PVC to coat than the wovens traditionally used. That adds up to savings in energy, materials, labor and shipping.

Companies use nonwovens as antimicrobials

The demand for sustainable products is mounting, but relatively new performance enhancements are lining up to grab headlines as well. Among the most glamorous are a crop of nano-enhanced materials, like Nanosan®, which claims to be the first commercially viable material of its kind on the market.

SNS Nano Fiber Technology LLC, Uniontown, Ohio, is a producer of specialized nanofiber matrices. By incorporating particles into their matrices and varying the type of polymer nanofiber, the company says virtually any characteristic imaginable can be achieved—super absorbency and strength, for example.

According to technical director Dr. Laura M. Frazier, Nanosan has potential as an antimicrobial as well. “Some specific uses are in the area of nitric oxide-releasing wound dressings for the treatment of leishmaniasis (a tropical, insect-born disease), diabetic foot ulcers, warts and foot fungus,” she says. “There are also potential applications in protective clothing, filtration and industrial waste management.”

With superbugs threatening the health of entire populations, antimicrobial fabrics could develop all the cachet of a wonder drug. Foss Manufacturing’s offering in the antimicrobial market is called Fosshield, which uses copper and silver ions interacting with moisture to produce the antimicrobial effect. It can be paired with both wovens and nonwovens and has been successfully tested on more than 650 kinds of bacteria. The bacteria lands on the fabric and the agent shuts down the bacteria’s metabolism, which results in bacterial kill rates of 99 percent in as little as 10 minutes.

Nonwoven industry faces challenges in development

Although the industry has the technology to develop a product with almost any performance demand, there is a looming threat, says Holmes. “There’s a very significant margin squeeze,” he says. Because the two largest players currently—Walmart and Exxon Mobil—are on either end of the value chain, everybody between is feeling the pinch. “As you squeeze the margins, the first things to be affected are research and development,” he says, and he’s concerned that this could hold the industry back.

Ramkumar says the next five to 10 years is “a crucial period,” and part of what needs to be done to foster development is to bring the pieces of the supply chain together by including policy makers, suppliers and end users in discussions at meetings and conferences. “It’s of no use if you don’t bring a man who uses it,” Ramkumar says.

Janet Preus is a freelance writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn.

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