And at the World EXPO2010 in Shanghai, China during May 2010, the Czech Republic’s leadership in nanotechnology – and particularly in nanofibre development – was showcased through a joint presentation between Elmarco and the iQ park science centre, both based in Liberec in the EU state.
Central to the country’s pavilion at EXPO2010 was a giant sculptured recreation of Elmarco’s Nanospider production process.
“Since we celebrated Czech National Day on May 17th, and the Czech Republic is known for creativity, imagination and skill – our industry-leading nanofibre technology was a focal point at the Shanghai exhibition,” said Jiří F. Potužník, of the country’s Commissioner General’s Office. “Nanofibres open undreamt of possibilities today in all fields of human activity and it is great that a Czech company is the global leader in this industry.
Nanofibres have a very broad range of applications. First patented in the US as far back as 1902, they have now been used in air and liquid filtration for some time, and have increasingly found their way into other areas of nonwovens, as production prices have fallen and manufacturing robustness has increased.
End-uses now include medical barriers, protective garments, face masks, cosmetics, hygiene, acoustic and thermal insulation, battery separators and tissue scaffolds.
The adoption of nanofibre technology has been driven by the surface area, pore size and other material properties of the nanofibre web and cutting-edge research continues in many areas, but particularly in medicine and energy. Falling prices and scale allowed microfibres to enable new products and industries and the same is now expected for nanofibres.
Elmarco’s Nanospider machines offer the production level manufacturing of high quality nanofibres, unlike current electro-spinning processes. The patented technology provides increased productivity and efficiencies while reducing raw material requirements, production time and labour costs.
In research settings, nanofibres are generally produced from needles, nozzles or spinnerets. A polymer is placed into solution and, through hydrostatic pressure, is extruded from the tip, while a voltage gradient is applied between the tip and a collector plate. A glass slide, nonwoven, textile or paper can be used as a substrate to collect the nanofibre sheet as it is formed. The major variables in producing nanofibres on such an apparatus are:
- The viscosity of the polymer
- The conductivity of the polymer
- The amount of pressure applied through the needle
- The amount of voltage passed between the needle and the collector
- The gap between the needle and the collector and,
- The conductivity of the substrate.
Nozzles are well-suited for initial work in the lab environment but the complexity of scaling-up such equipment for industrial production results in lower quality, greater downtime and higher production costs.
By contrast, Elmarco’s Nanospider technology is a ‘free surface’ system, employing no nozzles, needles or spinnerets.
Crucially, it allows all of the variables mentioned above to be controlled.
It has been estimated that the market for nanofibres will be worth $176 million in 2012 and grow to $825 million by 2017, with growth driven primarily by the use of these materials in the mechanical/chemical sector and, in particular, for manufacturing nonwoven filtration media.
The significance of Elmarco’s Nanospider technology in allowing the commercial scale production of nanofibre nonwovens is reflected in the company’s partnerships and development programmes with some of the leading global nonwovens manufacturers, including fellow Czech Republic company Pegas and Israel’s Avgol, as well as machinery giant Oerlikon Textile.
Elmarco has now opened a new centre for both research and development and production at its base in Liberec, which is attracting many universities to participate in new projects with the company. They include the Technical University of Liberec, the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, the country’s Chemical-Technological College and Charles University, reflecting the high level of collaborative work being undertaken in the Czech Republic.
But Czech Republic developments have attracted attention on a global scale, and current projects also involve North Carolina State University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stellenbosch University in South Africa, the University of Singapore, Kyoto Institute of Technology in Japan and CSIRO in Australia.
The industrial growth of the Czech Republic has been supported for many years by exports to the EU, primarily to Germany, and a near doubling of foreign direct investment, notably by the automotive industry and general manufacturing operations.
Bordering Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia, the well-placed republic has a population of 10.2 million and a highly-developed nonwovens sector.
Of an estimated 12-14 nonwoven roll goods producers in the country, the biggest is Pegas – Europe’s second biggest manufacturer of spunbond and meltblown products and a confirmed exhibitor at the INDEX11 which takes place from April 12-15th at Geneva Palexpo next year.
Since its establishment in 1990, the firm has rapidly expanded and now has two plants with eight lines, in Bučovice and Znojmo Přímětice.
Around 90% of production now goes to the hygiene market, and annual capacity is around 50,000 tonnes.
Pegas recorded a net profit of €20.8 million in 2009 –almost 40% higher than in 2008.
Meltblown materials are the speciality of another Czech company Ecotextil, located 20km from Prague. This company primarily supplies the sorbent, filtration and face mask media markets with its Ecostar, Microvac, Saxima and LDPE Ecobond-branded products.
Ecotextil’s sophisticated and specifically-engineered meltblown structures can be combined with spunbond nonwovens, impermeable foils and other materials in the weight range of 5-600 gsm and the webs can be coloured and treated with many additives including antistatics, UV stabilisers and hydrophilic compounds depending on the end-use.
Fibertex, the leading nonwovens company headquartered in Denmark, also now has extensive nonwovens operations in the country, with many key customers in the automotive market, including Skoda, VW, Audi, Suzuki, Opel and Mercedes.
German auto component supplier HP Pelzer has also recently constructed a new nonwovens plant in the country, and Mölnlycke Health Care has a factory there for single-use surgical drapes
Other notable Czech manufacturers include Polytex, which makes thermally and chemical resin bonded, needlepunched and stitchbonded products and Retex, with needling and stitchbonding technologies.