As the demand for finer and more efficient filter media grows amid burgeoning facemask requirements, melt-blown nonwoven technology is set to gain rapid traction. Melt-blown fibers have diameters of less than 10µm, which is considerably finer than human hair of 120µm, and even cellulose fibers of 50µm.
One of the main polymers used in the production of melt-blown nonwovens is polypropylene. The raw material is melted and forced through an extruder which consists of several tiny nozzles. Once the thermoplastic synthetic material has exited the nozzles, the individual filaments, in their semi-melted form are blown by hot air in the same direction, essentially expanding them and producing extremely fine, endless fibers, within a matter of seconds.
The application scope of the melt-blown nonwoven market is vast, spanning filtration applications such as vacuum cleaner bags or cabin air filters, hygiene applications like feminine hygiene and incontinence products, medical fabrics, electronics, oil adsorbents, and apparel, among others.
Growing demand for feminine hygiene products and adult incontinence products will drive melt-blown nonwovens industry penetration
In the hygiene sector, nonwoven fabrics are present in a wide variety of products. From baby diapers to wet towels, to adult incontinence products to feminine hygiene products, nonwoven technology is rapidly becoming an intrinsic part of products used in nearly every phase of daily life.
One of the main end-users of nonwoven fabrics is bodyworn absorbent hygiene products. According to a study conducted by EDANA (European Disposables and Nonwoven Association), Personal Care & Hygiene represented almost 390,000 mt (36%) by weight and over 16.5 billion m² (56%) of the overall m² production of nonwovens in Western Europe in 2001.
Thus the broadening application scope of these products in various hygiene products is likely to add impetus to melt-blown nonwoven industry dynamics over the years ahead. Meltblown fabrics offer several beneficial properties like softness, lightweight, superior wet & dry strength, chemical agent-free, and dermatologically neutral characteristics, which make them highly suitable for use in products like baby diapers, which need to be designed especially for delicate infant skin.
To that end, in 2018, SABIC introduced a new lightweight & breathable PP nonwoven fabric for use in personal hygiene applications. The new material is based on its innovative PP resin product designed to enhance the properties of melt-blown fibers in nonwoven fabrics. The material, dubbed SABIC PP 514M12, is based on an odor-free and phthalate-free technology that delivers superior processability for melt-blown fibers with high spinnability, and uniformity. The resulting melt-blown nonwoven fabrics thus possess advanced barrier properties, breathability, absorption, conformability, and myriad other characteristics which make them well suited for personal hygiene products like sanitary napkins and diapers.
Stringent regulations pertaining to polypropylene usage may hamper industry growth
While melt-blown fabrics are being utilized extensively across the industrial landscape, the presence of strict regulations on PP usage by regulatory authorities worldwide may present certain roadblocks to market development over the coming years.
Stringent mandates, such as the European Union’s REACH regulation, aimed at addressing growing environmental concerns may challenge the adoption of melt-blown nonwovens.
Proliferating product use in the manufacture of facemasks is emerging as a key melt-blown nonwoven market trend
Surgical face masks have long been considered important protective measures in healthcare settings, in order to safeguard patients and staff alike. High-quality face masks are becoming crucial for healthcare professionals, particularly in the present pandemic scenario created by the novel coronavirus.
Meltblown nonwovens play a key role in this regard, as they are considered an ideal filter material for various types of masks.
In fact, the Journal of Academia and Industrial study, which compared the performance of nonwoven facemask materials with conventional and micro-porous materials over 7 main properties including liquid penetration resistance, bacterial penetration resistance, mechanical resistance, linting, drapeability, flexibility, and comfort, revealed that the nonwoven textile outperformed the conventional fabrics in four of the seven parameters.
To that end, various manufacturers are integrating the use of melt-blown nonwoven fabrics into their operations, as a response to the ever-growing need and potential shortages of protective facemasks in the COVID-19 era.
For instance, Sinopec (China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation) announced the establishment of a new production line for melt-blown nonwovens in the Jiangsu Province in March 2020, in order to boost the supply of raw materials for face mask manufacturing during the pandemic period.
Likewise, leading packaging and paper producer Mondi also introduced new production lines in its Gronau plant in Germany, for the production of melt-blown nonwoven fabrics, as well as surgical masks. The setup of the new lines is part of the company’s efforts to reduce the impact of COVID-19 and address the growing demand for face masks from businesses, consumers, and health authorities.
Technological advancements and production expansion will facilitate growth for the melt-blown nonwoven industry
Key players in the melt-blown nonwoven industry are working on various strategic initiatives such as production capacity expansions as well as R&D efforts for nonwoven technology advancement, in order to cater to the rising product demand worldwide.
For instance, Freudenberg Performance Materials announced the expansion of its production capacity for nonwoven media used specifically for the production of certified EN14683 standard-compliant mouth-nose protection type of face masks, as well as EN149 standard-compliant FFP1, 2, and 3 masks. The materials are developed exclusively for the medical technology processing domain. Furthermore, Freudenberg has made significant investments towards the construction of a sophisticated melt-blown production line at its Kaiserslautern facility.
Meanwhile, Innovatec made a substantial investment in the development of two novel melt-blown nonwoven production lines in Europe, one of which is from Oerlikon Nonwoven. The investment is part of the company’s objective to manufacture an additional 1500 tons of nonwovens annually, which will eventually facilitate the creation of over 1.5 billion protective face masks.
Proliferating COVID-19 cases among the global population have created significant disruptions in the industrial domain, with various manufacturing facilities and supply chains taking a massive hit. With consumer purchases witnessing a marked drop across myriad product categories, several industries are facing challenges due to the adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the main challenges presented by the pandemic was an unprecedented surge in melt-blown nonwoven industry demand, which has historically observed stable and long-term demands. However, the melt-blown nonwoven and related industries are responding in earnest to this rise in demand, and are rapidly coming to be considered an essential part in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, given their ability to boost the production of PPE, facemasks, medical supplies, wipes, and other products required for effective COVID-19 response.
For example, in Italy, which was the first European nation to enter a lockdown, Ahlstrom-Munksjö expanded its melt-blown nonwovens capacity at its Turin plant, which is now able to produce enough material for the manufacturing of over 60 million facemasks a month.
With this rapid expansion in interest and production, melt-blown nonwoven fabrics are rapidly coming to be considered as a prominent contributor to nonwoven technology in the modern era. With rapid technical material developments and the broadening application scope of specialized polymer structures, new melt-blown fabrics will likely transcend the utility of their conventional counterparts, paving the way for a brighter and stronger forecast for the technology in the years ahead.