Shifting to renewable plastics, to address growing environmental concerns without compromising on the superior characteristics of plastics, will be a major factor driving the growth of polypropylene fiber industry.
Polymers are among the most commonly used materials in nearly every aspect of modern life. Polymers have been in use for centuries, and have rapidly integrated themselves into applications across myriad dominions of technologies, science, and industry.
While natural fibers have been in existence since early civilizations, man-made fibers were developed at the end of the 19th century, when the first regenerated or semi-synthetic materials were discovered. While completely synthetic polymers were created early in the 20th century, most fibers used commonly in modern applications gained prominence only in the 1960s and 70s.
One of the most prominent polymer types, polypropylene, first came to light when it was polymerized by two Phillips petroleum scientists, Robert Banks, and Paul Hogan. The material began to gain prominence over the next three years, especially once it started being commercially produced, following the perfection and synthesis of the first polypropylene resin by an Italian chemist, Prof. Giulio Natta in 1954. Polypropylene emerged fully into the commercial landscape by 1957 and gained massive popularity across the European region, gradually establishing itself as one of the most common types of plastics in the modern world.
The 1970s saw the first fibers from polypropylene being introduced into the textile industry and becoming a core part of the synthetic fibers industry.
Polypropylene fibers, also known as PP, refers to a synthetic fiber, which is transformed from 85% propylene. The materials demonstrate vast potential across several applications, most significantly in the manufacture of yarns. For instance, most affordable carpets used for domestic purposes are made using polypropylene fiber.
The rapid growth of the polypropylene fiber market in recent years is attributed mainly to the plethora of benefits demonstrated by the material, such as heat-insulating properties, lightweight, resilience, high resistance to organic solvents, acids, alkalies, and mildew, etc.
Burgeoning interest in polypropylene fiber reinforced concrete for construction applications
In the construction domain, the integrity and life of the structure depend heavily on its resistance against conditions such as chemical attacks, weathering action, abrasion, and other degradation processes throughout its life.
Concrete has long been considered the most preferred material for construction applications, owing to its low permeability, higher resistance against mechanical and chemical attacks, and enhanced mechanical properties, among others. While the compressive strength of concrete significantly impacts its behavior, its tensile strength is equally important with regard to its durability and appearance. However, concrete alone has a relatively low tensile strength. To address this, concrete is becoming increasingly reinforced with various types of fibers, in order to improve its crack arresting system, flexural tensile strength, and the ductile behavior of the basic matrix post cracking.
The use of polymeric materials for concrete modification has been a source of great interest and research over the past few decades. Polypropylene fibers, for instance, were first considered as suitable admixtures to concrete in the year 1965, in the construction of blast-resistant structures for the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Since then the material has undergone persistent improvements over the years and is used in modern applications as a short discontinuous fibrillated material for polypropylene fiber reinforced concrete production, or in the manufacture of thin sheet components as a continuous mat.
PFRC (polypropylene fiber reinforced concrete), especially, is used extensively in the construction of various structures, owing to the robust properties it demonstrates from the addition of fibers, such as flexural strength, impact strength, tensile strength, and increased toughness. PP is the preferred material of choice for these applications, mainly because of its vast availability, economic price points, and consistency in quality.
Textile innovations in polypropylene fiber-based fabrics for sportswear
Textiles are the first and most prominent application areas for the polypropylene fiber industry. High abrasion resistance, non-absorption of liquids, stains and dirt, washing ease, and color resistance are the major factors contributing to the popularity of these synthetic fibers over their natural counterparts in the textile industry.
Increasing standards and perceptions of customers across the globe have triggered a need for textile innovation in recent years. The sportswear market especially has witnessed a prolific rise in customer propensity towards higher comfort levels, easy-care, and attractive designs in their activewear. This in turn has prompted many key players to innovate functional fibers, novel structures and garments, designed to address these evolving customer needs.
For instance, one of the most common challenges faced by manufacturers of protective wear and sportswear is finding a high-performance, durable fabric that can remain hygienic and comfortable for its wearers. PP is the most commonly used material in active wear due to its durability and wear-resistance, but unlike cotton or wool, it is not sweat-absorbent, which can impact its performance in terms of comfort.
To address this, the EUREKA initiative’s E! 2709 BASTEX project came up with novel antibacterial additives, designed to be incorporated into polypropylene fiber-based materials in order to manufacture high-performance clothing. The concentration of the additive was defined such that it would demonstrate optimum antibacterial and hygienic properties and ensure wearer comfort, without affecting the durability and physical & mechanical properties of the polypropylene fibers.
Strategic initiatives by global players will present lucrative innovation prospects
Synthetic fibers, while widely popular across myriad industries are associated with several environmental concerns. For instance, studies suggest that the synthetic fiber industry is the cause of over 20% of the industrial water pollution across the globe. In order to address these concerns and create a more sustainable and durable alternative to harmful synthetic materials, several key players are making targeted efforts to develop new strategies and innovations in fiber technologies.
To illustrate, in June 2020, HP introduced its new material called High Reusability Polypropylene (PP). The novel, chemically resistant, durable material has been qualified for the company’s production-grade additive manufacturing systems. Designed for HP customers in the customer space as well as industries such as medical and automotive, the new BASF-enabled 3D High Reusability PP demonstrates qualities similar to regular polypropylene, including low moisture absorption rate, high durability, and robust resistance to chemical wear and tear.
Likewise, Borouge, Borealis, and ITOCHU made a joint announcement regarding their strategic intent to evaluate the benefits of integrating renewable polypropylene in the Japanese market. This move is a part of Japan’s countermeasures against climate change worldwide, including its plan to introduce nearly 2 million tons of renewable plastic products into the market by 2030. The joint effort will contribute significantly to this shift to renewable plastics, and address growing environmental concerns without compromising on the superior characteristics of plastics like polypropylene.