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NCSU to Expand Nonwoven Textiles Programs

North Carolina State University _<>_ is looking to expand its nonwoven textiles programs with the construction of a $30.5 million facility on Centennial Campus.

The 77,500-square-foot facility would give the College of Textiles the ability to produce small batches of nonwoven fabrics, which some in the industry say could increase the college’s already stellar reputation in the field.

While the university currently does not have funding for the project, it is optimistic it will receive financial help through the National Science Foundation. Behnam Pourdeyhimi, director of NCSU’s Nonwoven’s Institute, has applied for a grant to fund the project.

Industry followers say nonwovens represent the future of textiles, as they are purpose-specific fabrics that are less expensive to produce than woven products. Common nonwovens include Tyvek, used in envelopes and house wrap, surgical drapes, disposable cleaning wipes, Swiffer pads and household air filters.

“They make specific solutions to life’s everyday needs and problems,” says G.A.M. “Tony” Butterworth, an independent consultant for nonwoven manufacturers.

But many of the currently available nonwoven fabrics do present environmental challenges. While some of the individual fibers may be biodegradable, once they are bound with adhesives or synthetic fibers, they become less biodegradable.

And that may pose serious problems for manufacturers in accepting the technology, especially at a time when corporate green initiatives are being showered with tax credits and eco-friendly salutations.

Butterworth says the nonwovens industry is working toward creating more environmentally friendly products, but it’s not an easy task. Many nonwovens, such as disposable diapers and cleaning wipes, are designed to hold together when wet, and that makes it more difficult to create something that also will degrade in the landfill.

New Facility

The proposed facility at NCSU would allow the college to produce small batches of new textiles, something the industry largely lacks. Small batches would allow people with innovative ideas to create and test fabrics before expanding production.

The nonwovens industry is seen as having the potential to reinvigorate the textile manufacturing sector in the U.S. Currently, about a quarter of the 6 million metric tons of nonwovens produced each year are manufactured in the U.S., according to Inda, the Association for the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry.

Matt Pickett, with BASF’s nonwoven division in Charlotte, says the bulk of the overseas production is in more common products, such as clothing, furniture and mattresses.

But the industry is moving more toward high-tech fabrics, such as for military applications, filtration or engineered plastics, that require more equipment and knowledge. That production is largely centered in the U.S., he says.

Rory Holmes, president of Inda, which is located in Cary, says the industry has been growing by 8 percent to 10 percent annually, and he expects that growth to continue as new nonwovens are developed and new uses are found.

“Originally, nonwoven fabrics replaced woven because they were more expensive,” he says. “Now they are specifically designed for the end use.”

Butterworth says that too often now, great ideas for new nonwovens are cast aside because there is not the ability to manufacture small quantities and test them.

NCSU already is considered a leader in the field of nonwoven textile development, and the proposed pilot facility could boost that reputation even further.

This will be the second year Pourdeyhimi has applied for the grant. Last year, the nonwovens pilot facility, along with NCSU’s Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems Center for the development of smart grid technology, were finalists for major NSF grants. The FREEDM Center was selected and received $18.5 million.

Kevin McNaughton, NCSU’s associate vice chancellor for facilities, says the NSF rarely awards two major grants to the same university in one year. But university officials are optimistic they will receive funding this year since the project was a finalist last year.