The Development of Biopolymer Technology: A Sustainable Solution for Nonwovens
As environmental imperatives become an increasingly pressing concern for global industries, the nonwovens sector has sought to find new and sustainable ways to reduce its carbon footprint. With the European Union’s aim to become the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050, the development of novel biopolymers offers a clear alternative to plastics derived from fossil fuels.
As per information from the source, the shift to biopolymers represents a clear pathway towards more sustainable practices in the nonwovens industry. However, the introduction of novel materials requires the contribution and collaboration of materials engineers, textile experts, chemical specialists, and mechanical engineers.
Challenges in Adopting Biopolymers
The adoption of new biopolymer technologies comes with a variety of challenges in adapting novel materials to conventional processing techniques or adapting current processing techniques to novel materials. The appropriate web forming technology for each of these options varies, eg carding, air laying, wet laying, melt blown, and spun bonding. As established processes, they come with significant challenges involved in introducing new materials into any industry or product line.
Additionally, achieving smooth processing and conversion of new materials with conventional equipment is crucial for the successful commercial viability of novel biopolymers. The current alternative approach is to adapt conventional equipment to achieve smooth processing. Furthermore, novel materials must meet the specifications and performance demands of the materials and products they aim to replace.
NIRI’s Multidisciplinary Team of Experts
To address these challenges, NIRI’s multidisciplinary team of experts has developed novel biopolymer technology and prototype-scale laboratory facilities that help make novel materials commercially viable with less financial risk. The shift from fossil fuel-derived materials to alternative materials is leading a transformation in nonwovens, and NIRI’s team of experts is at the forefront of this technology.
Lab-Scale Prototyping Equipment
Lab-scale prototyping machines enable cost-effective and time-effective changes in prototypes. This means NIRI can quickly adapt prototypes to optimize the parameters and performance of biopolymer-based materials and resulting fabrics. NIRI’s labs are also uniquely equipped with prototype-scale equipment to assess processability, explore combinations of polymers with processing additives and yield, and optimize process conditions for the extrusion of biopolymers into filaments, spunbonded and melt-blown nonwovens.
Once nonwovens are successfully formed, bonding becomes a crucial requirement for their successful implementation. NIRI’s wide range of bonding techniques, including mechanical, thermal, and chemical bonding, can evaluate carded, air-laid, and wet-laid fabrics of novel biopolymers. NIRI experts work with customers to form bicomponent biopolymers, assess adhesion to fibers, and determine thermal bonding behavior and bonding performance. The main requirements for binders are their compatibility with various application methods, including spraying, coating, printing and saturation, fiber affinity, and bond strength.
Nonwovens are rarely designed to be reused and are mainly classified as durable, semi-durable, or disposable. End-of-life strategies differ by application, and the material’s composition is as crucial as the production methods. NIRI’s team of experts is working with customers to ensure that the waste collection and recycling infrastructure expands in line with the growing use of biopolymers in multiple sectors, thus extending the life of products in recycled and reused materials before degradation at the end of their useful life. Chemical recycling should ensure the true circularity of polymeric materials, reintroducing them into the same extrusion processes as their virgin counterparts.
As an emerging technology, biopolymer technology represents a sustainable solution for the nonwovens industry to reduce its carbon footprint. NIRI’s facilities and expertise present a compelling package for manufacturers looking to cost-effectively and rapidly explore new materials, ensuring they meet the specifications and performance of existing products, and addressing vital aspects of the Net Zero journey. The adoption of biopolymers requires collaboration across multiple disciplinary sectors, and NIRI’s team of experts has developed laboratory-scale prototyping equipment and bonding techniques that can evaluate and optimize the performance of novel biopolymer-based materials and resulting fabrics.