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Protective textiles: a sunrise sector

Interest grows in sustainable materials and processes for this market.

Features | March 13, 2023 | By: Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D.

U.S. warfighter clothing requires a range of functionalities, often incorporated into one textile. 

Images full of camouflage patterns and army combat gear are seen frequently in the news, no doubt in part because of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Next to weapons systems, the bullet proof gear and garments we are so used to seeing are, in fact, occupying an important place in defense procurement. 

But these images show only a part of the functionalities often required of protective textiles. This important category of advanced textiles is capable of addressing multiple requirements, and therefore has significant support from government entities and emergency response agencies. 

President Biden’s 2024 budget proposal calls for the largest peacetime defense spending is U.S. history, with a request over $840 billion, highlighting the need for investing in personnel, procurement and R & D. Europe’s larger economies, such as Germany and France, have also increased their defense and R&D expenditures.

The evidence

The technical textiles sector is a growth industry, with an expected rate above the GDP growth rates of some countries. The IMF’s ecU.S. warfighter clothing requires a range of functionalities, often incorporated into one textile. onomic forecast for 2023 projects the global GDP to grow at 2.9 percent; a recent report released by KPMG Assurance & Consultancy Services LLP puts the value of this sector at about $274 billion by 2027, with an annual growth rate of 5.2 percent. The protective textiles market is projected to reach a value of $16.5 billion at an annual growth rate of 4.7 percent. Medical textiles, an allied sector, is valued at $18.9 billion at an annual growth rate of 4.1 percent. 

India is one of the countries that’s investing heavily in domestic manufacturing capability for defense textiles. “India is on the verge of explosive growth in protective textiles as technical readiness is around 8 on a scale of 10,” says Ganesh Srinivasan, CEO of Bengaluru-based Resil Chemicals Pvt. Ltd., a specialty chemicals manufacturer. 

While the primary characteristic of protective textiles is their functionality, other attributes such as comfort, ease of use and the innate nature of its materials’ physical and chemical characteristics, are contributing to overall performance. Unlike many commodity and consumable products, price, thankfully, is not a significant determining factor. This provides opportunities for the industry in developing value-enhanced technology and products. 

“In addition to functional capability, comfort plays an important role in the use-value of protective textiles,” says Nalliah Kannan, assistant general manager of technical textiles at Chennai, India-based Loyal Textiles Mills Ltd. This manufacturer’s perspective highlights the importance of choosing fibers and formulations that provide multifunctional capabilities in protective textiles. 

Interest in sustainability 

There is clearly a growing interest in the sector to embrace sustainability. For the high-tech sector, which depends on performance, sustainability must be looked at with a full “360-degree” viewpoint. The industry is looking to capitalize on all aspects of the sustainability concept, including using earth friendly materials and energy efficient processes, as well as practicing recycling and reuse. A good way to map out sustainability goals in the protective textiles space is to employ the circularity approach. 

The U.S. Dept. of Defense has been showing keen interest in using natural fibers in the mix to develop next-generation warfighter personal protective equipment (PPE), in addition to the established NyCo (Nylon-cotton) combination. FR-treated regenerated fibers like LenzingTM FR and others are being used in a variety of applications. 

“The Indian Navy is interested in fabrics with 50 percent meta-aramid and 50 percent FR viscose, as viscose can absorb moisture from the body, which contributes to comfort,” says Nalliah Kannan of Loyal Textiles.  

With the advancements in spinneret technology, bicomponent filaments that contain water-soluble polymers can be explored to develop yarns with enhanced comfort. The use of water-soluble polymers will help to overcome solvent recovery issues. In the conventional spinning sector, a compact spinning technique will help with enhancing strength and reducing “hairiness” in yarns. Machinery developments, such as compact techniques to overcome some weak links in using natural fibers, can help with the development of high-performance staple fiber yarns for defense textiles.

Biobased solutions

Herbal formulations that can provide antimicrobial capabilities are getting attention. Government agencies such as the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Military’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) could help academic and industrial projects in their early development stages by supporting research that confirms the science of these new products and technologies. Once proven, the private sector can then step in to accomplish scaling up to commercial viability. 

So far, the bottlenecks have been in the cost of biobased materials and availability of active ingredients. Support from government programs could bring down the cost of natural formulations, and that would encourage acceptance in the commercial sector, as well as the user community. But research continues despite challenges. Coimbatore-based Avinashilingam Institute for Home Science and Higher Education and Bharathiar University, for example, have active programs in biotextiles and biobased materials catering to advanced textiles. 

Bio-based materials such as herbs, nuts and seeds are being explored to provide functionality. Research carried out by Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan’s group at the University of Massachusetts Lowell has focused on using non-toxic phytic acid derived from natural sources to enhance flame retardancy. Natural materials-derived mosquito repellants have been explored to develop next-generation skin-friendly U.S. Army combat uniforms. Functionalized camouflage garments with specific properties could also be developed using 3D printing techniques; however, mass production may be a challenge.

Exploiting synergies 

Development of new technologies in the protective textiles (protech) space depend on multidisciplinary collaborations and exploiting synergies between basic sciences and materials technology. Loyal Textile Mills utilizes its resources from ginning of cotton to garmenting in the development of protech items, such as natural fiber-blended FR garments, infrared (IR) barrier textiles and cotton-aramid blended fabrics for military applications. 

Loyal Textiles Mills develops novel natural fiber blends that find applications in the oil and gas sector, mining industry, the mineral industry such as aluminum melting, and military markets. It is important to note that functionality can be enhanced with chemical finishes. Such developments involve symbiotic technical and commercial relationships which are exploited by Loyal Textile Mills with chemical companies including global chemical manufacturer Huntsman Corp., and Belgian multinational chemical company Solvay. 

While innovations at the fiber level are few and far between, incremental improvements involving creative ways of using blends, developing combo products, and penetrating allied markets are some options for the protective and advanced textiles industry. Yarns from blends of meta- and para-aramids, with a small percentage of carbon fibers, give inherent flame retardancy, which are useful in applications for the oil and gas industry, and in electric and power transmission production. Loyal Textile Mills and machinery parts manufacturer Arvind Industries, based in Ahmedabad, India, develop such products supplying to the global market. 

Resil Chemicals has been focusing its efforts in developing sustainable products utilizing sustainable processes to cater to the protective and advanced textiles sector. DYNAMAX from Resil and its N9 World Technologies isa novel combination of textile finishing technologies that impart six functional attributes to the treated fabric. The patented technology provides microbial resistance, prevents odor development, enables moisture activated cooling, enhanced wicking, UV protection and antistatic for protective and fashion textiles.

Resil recently introduced sustainable biobased coatings with antibacterial qualities that make use of earth mint, linseed oil, chitosan and nanochitosan. “Citronella, neem and eucalyptus leaves have been shown in our research to have particular mosquito repelling qualities that enhance UPF values up to [a rating of] 35–40, in addition to a bacterial reduction of greater than 99 percent,” says Ganesh Srinivasan.

Moving forward

Protective and value-added textiles sector is a sunrise sector in the broader textile industry arena, but it is heavily dependent on government participation, and hence support is also needed for procurement and R & D in this sector. Research in this sector is resource dependent as well, which also requires public funding. Industry must be open to partner with governments in seeking support to translate proven ideas into commercial successes. 

Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar is a professor in the Nonwovens & Advanced Materials Laboratory, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, and a frequent contributor to Textile Technology Source. 

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