To the delight of the nonwoven fabrics industry—the only growing segment of the U.S. textile market—the Nonwovens Cooperative Research Center (NCRC) in the NC State’s College of Textiles opened a dream R&D facility on May 28th. The new NCRC Partners Lab is a state-of-the-art spunbond and meltblown installation capable of blowing and stretching microfibers into webs of nanofibers incorporating high-performance characteristics.

The NCRC Partners Laboratory adds new R&D capabilities for use by industry as well as faculty and graduate students from any of the eight affiliated universities whose nonwovens activities are coordinated by the NCRC. “There is no other facility in the world that can combine these processes in one continuous line,” says Dr. Benham Pourdeyhimi, NCRC director. “Because we can operate at commercial speeds and throughputs, we offer companies of any size the opportunity to develop and test products before they invest in their own plant and equipment.”

“We’re pushing the envelope in terms of how many nanofibers with various functions can be combined using melt blowing,” says Pourdehimi. Photomicroscopy of fiber cross-sections (see illustration at top right) reveals the precision of the technology, even at the nanoscale. Fibers can be positioned with enough accuracy to earn their descriptive labels—side-by-side, sheath-core, segmented pie, and islands-in-the-sea. Already, the NCRC has combined an astounding 1,080 nanofibers in a single extrusion with a diameter less than 200 nanometers using the islands-in- the-sea method.

The NCRC Partners Lab, valued at about $12 million, was financed with only $1.3 million in university funds—the rest was leveraged as cash and equipment from the National Science Foundation and from NCRC industry members’ donations, discounts and service contracts. “Many of the companies who produce nonwovens also have other textile-related businesses that are not growing,” says Pourdeyhimi. “But our members recognize that by pooling funds for research and development, they can increase the profitability of their nonwovens operations.

Most of us are familiar with nonwovens, from disposable diapers and air filters to TyvekTM house wrap, disposable medical gowns and those untearable Federal Express envelopes. The industry is now shifting to include durable products such as furnishings and automobile seats, as well as protective apparel for soldiers, firefighters and police.

The U.S. leads the world in technology and production of nonwovens, despite declining trends in the textile industry as a whole. Nonwovens are produced at high speed, in high volumes and at low cost, generating over $38 billion in annual revenues and 160,000 jobs in the U.S. Because the equipment is expensive and the technology is sophisticated, nonwovens jobs tend to stay on shore, leading to an industry growth rate of eight to ten percent annually. North Carolina has 29 nonwoven firms—almost twice as many as any other state—employing 16,000 and producing over $3 billion in annual revenues. Pourdeyhimi is bullish. “Our center is committed to maintaining America’s premier position in the market for high-tech textiles.”

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