Nonwovens technology plays key role in the world’s response to COVID-19

A Fastmarkets RISI Viewpoint

Why is it so hard to make enough facemasks?

Somebody should make up a new name for things we never give any thought to, but which are vital to our lifestyle or even our very existence. During the current COVID-19 outbreak, we’ve all been given an abrupt introduction to this phenomenon. What are some examples? Well, there are people, like delivery persons, food store employees, truck drivers, bus and underground train crews, doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians, and people who make facemasks.

What are some objects that could be given this new name we haven’t coined yet? Well, for starters, how about facemasks? Not to mention the surgical gowns, drapes, shoe covers and headgear worn by the workers in your local hospital who stand ready to save your life if you catch this dreaded disease.

Not enough masks. Media reports are constantly warning about a shortage of masks—not to mention other medical garments, as well as coronavirus test kits. But these days, seemingly every newspaper is printing instructions on how to make yourself a mask. But why is there such a shortage?

Since masks are one of those things we never think about, most of us don’t realize that there are different kinds. The most valuable masks, the ones that do the best job of protecting against viruses and other pathogens, are made with a material that most of us never give any thought to: nonwoven fabric.

To understand why billions of masks can’t be cranked out overnight, it is helpful to think about what constitutes a face mask. If it is the kind that gives you the best protection against a virus, like an N95 respirator, or at least some significant protection against pathogens, like a surgical mask, it really consists of three functional elements.

Facemasks: a product of many parts. First is the actual filter medium that keeps the pathogens from reaching your nose or mouth. That filter is surrounded by the second element, a sort of envelope to contain it and separate it from the face. The third element is some method of attaching the mask to the front of your head, such as elastics or ties that tie around the head. Facemasks can also include a nose clip or nose bridge that promotes a close fit around the wearer’s nose.

The filter medium is obviously the most critical. At a very high level of filtration, an N95 mask is capable, when properly fitted and worn, to protect the wearer against 95% of particles. Meanwhile, surgical masks of various kinds may filter a lesser percentage, and cloth masks are even less effective. Some masks can filter out microscopic germs like bacteria, while only a few can filter submicroscopic pathogens like viruses.

Key raw material. The material, which is used as a filter in the vast majority of sophisticated masks today, is a meltblown nonwoven. The meltblowing process produces a mesh or lattice of extremely fine fibers. They can be 1-2 μm in diameter (a micron is one millionth of a meter). A meltblown fiber is less than 1% of the thickness of a human hair, with the voids between the fibers also being unimaginably tiny.

Tiny, but still big enough that viruses can slip right between the fibers in a meltblown fabric, unless the fabric is also subjected to a treatment during manufacture that imparts an electrostatic charge to it. This static charge attracts the virus, causing it to adhere to the fibers. When the wearer removes the facemask and disposes of it properly, the virus goes with it, dying in the trash.

The envelope that surrounds the filter is often made from other nonwoven fabrics produced with the wetlaid or spunbond processes. Polypropylene is a common raw material for various face mask components.

So, a face mask consists of several parts—but still, why is it so hard to make?

Easy to produce, in a way. In a lot of ways, it really isn’t. Effective facemasks have been around for decades; cruder face masks were worn by ordinary citizens during the Spanish Flu pandemic of the early 20th century.

Because masks of many kinds are relatively cheap, manufacture in advanced economies in Europe and North America began to disappear many years ago. Prior to the emergence of the novel coronavirus, China made more than 50% of the surgical and respirator masks in the world, because they could be made inexpensively, with consistent product specifications and benefiting from China’s efficient global logistics capabilities.

Meltblown nonwoven manufacturing capacity was gradually added in China, matching the requirements of the country’s growing facemask industry. The market was in reasonable balance for many years.

Astronomical jump in demand. However, this year we have seen an enormous jump in demand for masks. There are no measures yet of how much mask converting capacity—or, correspondingly, how much meltblown fabric capacity—has been added by China, but it is probably more than the country would normally have needed to add in many years, perhaps decades.

Is that a problem? In a way, yes, it is. Anyone else adding new capacity now has a tougher business decision to make than what faced Chinese companies. Meltblown machines are pretty sophisticated pieces of technology. The giant in the field is a German company called Reifenhaeuser. Other companies do the same, including some in the US and China. The machinery is complicated, and it requires considerable experience to operate it efficiently and consistently.

Incentives for the investment. Although a new meltblown machine only costs a few million dollars to install, companies are still reluctant to add capacity for a short-term emergency, which may not find a market once the emergency is over. Governments such as the Chinese central government have explored various ways to incentivize companies to make the investment, such as by offering outright subsidies for installation and operation or by offering to purchase some of the output for a national or regional stockpile. Even so, that may still leave a number of machines looking for a lot of customers who may not exist after the pandemic.

While it can’t be quantified yet, China has likely added enough facemask capacity, and capacity to make electrostatically charged meltblown, to absorb all the world’s normal demand growth—in the absence of further virus spikes or new pandemics—for years to come. (Of course, the world will probably change its standards of how much mask capacity is enough, both globally and in each country.)

There are other products that can be made on a meltblown machine, some of which don’t require the electrostatic charge equipment needed for a sophisticated mask. Examples of other end-uses include sorbents to treat oil spills, various liquid and gaseous filtration applications, and some thermal insulation uses. Still, anytime you multiply the capacity of a particular kind of manufacturing operation by a large number over a short period of time, you are going to end up with some plants that don’t run at capacity for many years, if ever.

Takes time to build. Another problem with deciding to invest in a meltblowing line is that it takes time to engineer, deliver and assemble one—three and a half months or more, depending on the quality and complexity of the line. Thus, there is the risk that the need will have disappeared by the time the machine gets into commercial operation. When China was scratching to find enough meltblown capacity, this was probably an initial consideration for a number of Chinese companies. Because in many cases they went ahead with the investments anyway, we can expect that even after the pandemic is over, most of the world’s face masks will still be made in China.

This raises another issue: avoiding dependence on one source. It seems certain that major economies outside China will want to retain the ability to maintain a national stockpile of facemasks, at least until the attention span of political leaders is exhausted and they move on to some other problem. Some European and North American companies are adding meltblown capacity, but it is mostly big firms like Germany’s Sandler and the US-based Berry Global, which have the capability to engage the machines in other product areas in the future, as needed, and to spread the meltblown production across a very large customer base.

Other facemask filters. There are ways around a shortage of meltblown nonwovens: you can use an older filter material like microglass, which was displaced decades ago when meltblown came along but which works perfectly well for many applications. Or, with the right technology, you can sterilize used facemasks and then recharge the filters, employing the masks again two or three more times.

Biopolymer producer NatureWorks and the US-based Nonwovens Institute announced this week that they have developed a new spunbond technology to produce filter media that don’t require recharging, simplifying the process for reusing a mask.

There are also machines that make a layered composite product that consists of outer layers of spunbond nonwovens and inner layers of meltblown nonwovens, referred to as spunmelt. It is possible to shut down the spunbond beams and operate the production line as a meltblown machine, if you add electrostatic charging capability to the line, thus gaining another source of incremental meltblown supply. The problem then is you can’t use the line to make its traditional products, which can include components for baby and adult diapers, feminine napkins and—getting back to our discussion of items in short supply—surgical caps, gowns, shoe covers and drapes, as well as absorbent hospital bed pads.

There is no one right answer, and the pandemic is creating such urgent needs for masks and other personal protective equipment that the world really needs to come up with a set of workable “roughly right” answers right now, rather than a perfect answer too late.

A lot is riding on a material nobody ever gave much thought to. Now, if only we could come up with a name for the phenomenon I mentioned at the start of this article.

David Allan, is the editor of Fastmarkets RISI's Nonwovens Markets and leads and Nonwovens Company Profiles.

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