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Fiber World

Polymer Prognosis

Polymer industry positions for expanded production.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the U.S. man-made fiber industry is being buffeted by the same forces that have driven so much garment and made-up article manufacturing offshore. Man-made fiber production does not suffer from excess labor costs. Rather, the industry has successfully reduced costs to become internationally competitive but cannot compete against politically fostered, unending international pressures including, but not limited to, financial crises, appallingly low wages, government subsidies and working conditions long since banned in the United States. Fiber production in the United States cannot exist on efficiency and process improvement alone; it must search for and work with new markets, products and/or customers for future sustenance.In the past, Textile World has commented about the industrys need to explore new markets with existing products, as well as the need for new products. In this issue, TW delves more deeply into what the industry has done and is doing to create new products to replace the commodity items surrendered to international suppliers.  In recent issues, a number of polymer developments designed to position the industry in new areas have been reviewed. To date, most of these developments remain small players in the multi-billion-pound U.S. market, but a few appear to display characteristics needed for expanded production and distribution. Most of these improvements address penetration into home fashion and industrial markets areas less susceptible, but not immune to, import pressure.Comments are limited to pure, new polymeric innovations, but occasionally have included items that are more accurately described as polymer improvements. Often, these are as valuable as truly new chemistry and worthy of discussion.

Randy Howard, president and CEO, Cargill Dow, said, "We are not a niche player. We are global. We are a reality and we are here to stay," as he addressed the crowd at the opening of the first global-scale polylactide production facility. NylonIt appears that development of polymer variants for traditional nylon distribution has slowed in the past several years. The reorganization of the DuPont fiber activities, of which nylon is a major, if not the major part, signals a bleak future for traditional nylon products. It should be noted that Kevlar® and Nomex®, para-aramid cousins of nylon, remain in DuPont. Potential in optical fiber reinforcing; circuit boards; and brake linings, belts and hoses in increasingly harsh automotive under-hood environments offer opportunities to turn these fibers from niche players into markets.PolyesterPolyester producers feel particular pressure to diversify, since polyester staple has felt the wrath of imports more than any other fiber. KoSa, Houston, announced several developments last year, adding Type 55 Celbond to its family of nonwovens-targeted fibers. Type F55 is a bicomponent fiber with a polyester core in a polypropylene sheath for improved performance in airlaid nonwovens. Polyester provides the strength, durability and recovery, while the olefin sheath bonds at a low melt temperature. Among its offerings and brands for hospitality, healthcare and home furnishing end-uses, KoSa continues to offer ESP® stretch fibers and Microtherm® microfibers, and supports a licensing program for its Avora® FR brand of inherently flame-resistant fabric. A recent introduction is Imbue antimicrobial yarn with built-in properties to eliminate odors and protect against bacterial growth.Wellman Inc., Charlotte, N.C., has added Sensura to its family of fibers (See Quality Fabric of the Month, ATI, December 2000). The material reportedly has a polyester heritage, but is formed from several different comonomers. Wellman describes the fiber as a low-pilling, optically brightened, disperse-dyeable staple fiber with properties making it a viable cotton competitor. The company feels the product is sufficiently different to qualify as a new generic fiber class. Italy-based Gruppo Bonazzi, producer of the Aquafil family of textile yarns, recently introduced a polyester-based, ceramic-containing fiber that is designed to block the suns rays and provide comprehensive protection from heat and ultraviolet rays. In strict terms, it is a polymer addition, not a polymer variant, but it is designed to accomplish the same end open a new market and replace commodity materials with products that offer the customer added value. Polytrimethyl Terephthalate (PTT)
Using a precursor material from Houston-based Shell Chemical, KoSa has begun producing Corterra fibers for carpet, apparel, home fashion and automotive end-uses. Strictly speaking, Corterra is not a recent development, but rather an ongoing development that slowly is gaining adherents in the fabric industries. Shell and KoSa tout softer hand, easier dyeing, color retention, and better stretch and recovery as important features of their materials. As might be expected in the United States, development of apparel fabrics has been limited, although considerable effort has been expended on apparel fabrics in Europe and the Far East. While worldwide capacity for fibers is limited, Shell remains actively interested in supplying the polymer precursor. The barriers to entry for other fiber producers have been reduced by raw materials, but here, the fiber producer can concentrate on fiber production and distribution and leave the polymer chemistry to Shell.In addition to supplying the polymer to KoSa in the Western Hemisphere, Shell has supplied quantities to a number of offshore producers. Polylactide (PLA)The newest fiber on the horizon is the NatureWorks polylactide (PLA) family of materials from Cargill Dow LLC, Minnetonka, Minn. Cargill Dow does not spin the fiber; it is, and intends to remain, the supplier of precursor polymer. While introductory market tests are being handled by market-wise producers, here, as with PTT, low barriers to entry hinder added fiber-producing capacity from joining the fray. Based on an annually renewable raw material resource corn the fibers, according to the company, offer better skin sensitivity, thermal insulation, breathability and absorbency characteristics than polyester.
Cargill Dow recently opened a facility in Blair, Neb., which will produce more than 300 million pounds of NatureWorks PLA annually. Additionally, because corn is the raw material, NatureWorks is merchandising the materials as truly biodegradable natural fibers. Pilot plant production is in market tests at Fiber Innovation Technology (FIT), Parkdale, Unifi, Interface and several international partners. Cargill Dow recently announced another production capacity that, when completed, is expected to provide 140,000 metric tons (more than 300 million pounds) of polymer, half fiber grade and half for packaging and molding. AntimicrobialOne of the hotter (pun intended) areas of fiber development is production of antimicrobial fibers. In addition to several proprietary processes, two prominent techniques are used to achieve antimicrobial properties: the combination of ionic silver and fiber polymer, a the AgION process; and the use of Triclosan, a chlorinated phenoxy compound. Nylstar®, the joint venture of Rhodia S.A., France, and Snia S.p.A., Italy, uses a proprietary material to produce Meryl® Skinlife; Foss Manufacturing Co., Hampton, N.H., uses AgION materials and Sterling Fibers uses Triclosan in their acrylic fibers. A major advantage of antimicrobial fibers, vis-is topical treatments, is property permanence through multiple wearings, washings and cleanings in a variety of apparel, home fashion and industrial end-uses. To name a few wipes, socks, healthcare fabrics, filters, uniforms, sheets and towels. PolyethyleneHoneywell, Morristown, N.J., and its predecessor, AlliedSignal, long have manufactured limited quantities of polyethylene fibers. Linked to Allieds traditional industrial nylon position, Honeywell recently announced a capacity doubling of Spectra® polyethylene fibers to offer additional lightweight, strong fibers to armored vehicles, body armor, cordage, sailcloth, cut-resistant gloves and sporting goods. Honeywell is the sole polyethylene producer in the United States. Hoechst produces Certran in Europe; Dutch State Mines (DSM) makes Dyneema® in Europe, while Toyobo owns the label and produces Dyneema in Japan. Fire RetardantsMany roads lead to flame-retardant/flame-resistant (FR) fibers, and virtually an equal number of roads, led by product liability concerns, lead away. Many firms have tried and dropped FR; the remaining are extremely careful of their warranty status. KoSas Avora FR brand of inherently flame-resistant fabrics has already been mentioned. Other fibers follow:It is expected that FR for industrial and home fashion end-uses will increasingly dominate fabric development. U.S. textiles was dragged kicking and screaming to the FR altar but, in retrospect, the marriage has been comfortable and profitable. There is no reason to expect fewer FR regulations, particularly if you do business in Europe.Glass fibers, once used extensively in window treatments, are inherently FR, but their difficulty in processing, poor flex resistance and severe employee concerns necessitated development of safer alternatives. Current materials include the old standby, Nomex, from Dupont. Aramid-based, supplemented with proprietary FR technology, it was introduced in the late 1960s and is focused on protective clothing, high-performance hoses and high-temperature electrical end-uses. From the original one-fiber offering, it now is available in a series of variants designed for specific markets. BASF, Mount Olive, N.J., provides a melamine-based fiber, Basofil®. Basofil combines a unique polymer technology with non-round and variable diameters, which create insulative pockets in the fabric, adding thermal protection to the garment. Germany-based Celanese offers polybenzimidazole materials under the brand PBIGold®. End-uses include all sorts of heat-resistant and protective industrial apparel; such as that worn by firefighters, industrial workers and race-car drivers. Pump packing, gaskets and brake components are other end-uses. Acrylic producers have manufactured significant amounts of modacrylic fibers (usually containing a bromine component to impart FR) for apparel and home fashion end-uses. One of the best known is Sunbrella® Firesist awning, an umbrella and marine fabric from Glen Raven Mills, Glen Raven, N.C. Rhodia produces Kermel®, a polyimide-amide fiber for European markets and periodically has distributed minor quantities in the United States.  Engineering PolymersSeveral traditional engineered polymers are finding their way onto extruders to be tried as specialty fiber materials. None yet are market saviors, but several hold considerable promise, and TW plans to monitor their progress periodically throughout the coming year. Polyethylene naphthalate (PEN), a cousin of polyester and PTT, is being tried in industrial end-uses for improved creep resistance in specialty hoses, belts and tires. United Kingdom-based Zyex Ltd. produces limited quantities of monofilament polyether-etherketone (PEEK) fibers, interesting for their abrasion-resistant, lightweight characteristics. The fibers are hollow to offset the relatively high cost of the polymer precursors. Fluropolymer (PTFE) fibers are produced in Europe by Austria-based Lenzing AG, and in the United States by W.L. GoreandAssociates, Newark, Del. Highly specialized materials, they are used primarily in valve and bonnet packings and filters for hot-gas filtration. After many years away from the synthetic side of the man-made fiber business, Eastman Chemical Co., Kingsport, Tenn., has resurfaced with a precursor polymer for polycyclohexane dimethylene terephthalate (PCT) fibers. Stated advantages are soft hand and excellent compression recovery for pillows and cushions. Eastman also has introduced Eastar Bio, a copolyester completely biodegradable in normal composting conditions (See Quality Fabric Of The Month, TW, this issue). Capacity is noted at 15,000 metric tons per year.Two additional engineering polymers, polyphenylene sulfide (PPS) and polybutylene terephthalate (PBT), continue to attract attention for specialized markets. It is claimed that linear PPS provides an excellent combination of thermal, mechanical and chemical resistance properties. It is inherently flame-retardant, passing the Underwriters Laboratory type flammability tests. It is being researched for flue gas filters and high-temperature hazardous liquid materials filtration, with a possibility of significant application in ozone filtering and scavenging. Work continues to try to take advantage of PBTs natural properties of high strength and toughness with low creep, even at elevated temperatures. PBT is being positioned between polypropylene on the low temperature end and PPS for extra-high temperatures in oil and automotive filters. The fibers fine size and excellent wettability make it a natural for the growing field of blood filtration.Based on the number of fiber variants investigated, it appears that the imaginative and innovative sectors of the man-made fiber industry are healthy. The key question, however, involves the financial arithmetic surrounding each opportunity. The industry has seen many fibers come and go, many with properties equivalent to or greater than some of those listed here. This analysis suggests that, given the right raw materials, industrial textiles can enjoy substantial growth. It looks as though development is ready to lead.

May 2002



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