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Hidden textiles

March 25th, 2019 / By: / Feature

Infrastructure and construction textiles grow in importance and focus on more sustainable alternatives.

SCOURLOK and ARMORMAX Engineered Earth Armoring Solutions were used in a shoreline defense system, developed by Propex, to restore a severely eroded streambank along a section of Mountain Creek in Tennessee. Propex won an IFAI International Achievement Award of Excellence for the project. Photo: Propex.

Infrastructure textiles are an important, but often overlooked, category within advanced textiles, but these functional fibrous structures are gaining importance. The National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) reports that construction textiles are a growth area. In its 2018 State of the Industry report, the organization urged the U. S. government to enhance U.S. infrastructure, which will be an enabler for several industrial textiles, such as filters, geotextiles and construction wear.

There are also some infrastructure textiles that can be categorized as “smart,” depending on how they function. Grand View Research Inc. estimates the smart textiles market size to be $5.5 billion by 2025, and it notes that some architectural textiles with enhanced performance characteristics can be grouped as smart textiles.

Furthermore, the push for more sustainable materials and processes has also found infrastructure uses with waste materials being recycled and re-purposed in building applications.

A means to classify construction textiles

Construction or infrastructure textiles are among those classified as technical textiles, which are fibrous structures that find applications beyond the regular fiber-to-fashion supply chain. These textile structures focus on functional properties rather than aesthetics. Germany-based Messe Frankfurt devised a broad-based classification of advanced textiles, grouped into different functional applications including: Buildtech, Geotech, Indutech, Mobiltech and others. This grouping does not, however, consider how these functional textiles are procured.

Particularly regarding advanced textiles, procurement is normally in bulk through institutions that may be public, governmental or privately held. One way to reflect the way these industrial products are consumed would be classifying them as institutional, governmental or consumer. Construction textiles procurement is predominantly handled by project consultants.

Similarly, in the case of protective textiles, procurements are predominantly by local, state and central government agencies. Therefore, regulations, requirements and costs vary, based on the type of procurement. This necessitates the need for a consumption-based classification in addition to the field of use as specified by Messe Frankfurt.   

Construction or infrastructural textiles can be grouped into geotechnical products, architectural textiles, household, active/smart infrastructure fibrous materials, and miscellaneous items, such packaging used in construction.

Geotechnical products are established applications for textiles in infrastructure projects, which can be woven, nonwoven and composites. These products provide filtration and separation between the top layer and soil during the construction of roads and for structural reinforcement. Some countries have mandatory requirements for the use of geotechnical products used in the construction of public projects in order to enhance the lifetime of the products and their performance and efficiency.

Coated fabrics are commonly used for architectural textiles, and synthetics dominate this field. Weather and acoustic insulation materials, such as singles and fiberglass mats, are common household construction textiles. Functional coatings such as UV protection, light-reflective textiles and phase-changing chemistries are some of the active textile structures that are being used today.

New developments

With more awareness concerning the environmental and health issues, the industry has turned its focus to alternative materials for construction-related applications that are sustainable. Normally in the case of acoustic and insulation products, fiberglass high-loft nonwovens are used. Toxicity is determined by the nature and size of materials, among various other contributing factors. These important variables have been taken into consideration when devising new products, and hence natural products are getting more attention. Particularly, the research community is taking a keen interest in exploiting new materials, such as PLA in film form for filtration and construction applications.

The United States’ cotton sector has been a pioneer in looking into cotton as insulation mats for infrastructure and automobile applications. Waste and discounted (low micronaire) cottons are being exploited. The New Orleans-based USDA laboratory has developed carded needlepunched fabrics from blends of natural fibers and synthetics. Results have shown that cotton nonwovens and polyurethane foams enhance the acoustic absorption capabilities of floor linings, showing that natural fibers can find industrial applications.

Similarly, with stringent end-of-life requirements in automobiles and other industrial products, more and more environmentally friendly materials such as fibers and binders are being used. The Nonwovens and Advanced Materials Laboratory at Texas Tech University had investigated the possibility of using Texas course wool for weather and acoustic insulation products, creating value-added applications for natural fibers beyond their regular fiber-to-fashion supply chain.

An interesting project led by Professor Rajagopalan Vasudevan of Thiagarajar College of Engineering in Madurai, India, is utilizing recycled plastics and plastic waste as reinforcing materials towards constructing roads. This project finds new applications for plastic, thereby reducing the environmental load. Plastic wastes are made into blocks that are cost-effective road-building blocks. According to reports, several states in India, including Tamilnadu, are using the plastic “road blocks,” and countries such as The Netherlands are taking note of this development.

Cary-based Cotton Inc. has been creating awareness about recycling denim, by developing industrial products such as insulation, through the Blue Jeans Go Green™ project, which has been in existence since 2006. Bonded Logic Inc. has been manufacturing these recycled denim insulation products, and according to the manufacturers, these products are more efficient than conventional insulation mats.

Not only denim wastes, but carpet wastes have been re-purposed—in this case for particle boards—through Carpet America Recovery Effort. The government of India enterprise has come up with glass fiber-reinforced gypsum wall board known as Gypwall, which has resulted in producing larger prefabricated panels for construction purposes.

The Mumbai, India-based Central Institute for Research on Cotton Technology (CIRCOT) has pioneered the development of particle boards from cotton stalks. These have been used in applications such as walls, partition panels, insulation materials, artificial ceilings and other uses. According to CIRCOT, in India alone, 30 million tons of these agro wastes are available, and it is important that value-added products are developed from such wastes. Atmospheric plasma-etched textiles and composites with enhanced adhesion can be looked into for many construction projects. However the cost of these technologies will determine their acceptability and use.

What’s next?

As the consumption of industrial textiles are predominantly by institutions (private or public), it is necessary to investigate the new way of classifying them based on the classification provided in this article. Natural fibers, and environmentally friendly binders and chemistries must be exploited as a way forward in support of a more earth-friendly construction textiles sector.

Additionally, processes and products must evolve that will bring down costs, to assure the support of institutional buyers, such as those in infrastructure, shipping and defense sectors. The construction textiles sector should look into products beyond coated fabrics and geotextiles. Large-scale availability, government regulations, cost and consumer acceptance will be key factors in the immediate acceptability of emerging infrastructure textiles.

Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D. is the director of the Nonwovens and Advanced Materials Laboratory, Texas Tech University, and a frequent contributor to Advanced Textiles Source.