A Glass Act

August 17, 2005

with years of history behind it, glass is looking to find new markets, compete with synthetics and beat its lingering bad reputation

Through the years glass has been characterized as unsafe, has been placed under strict government regulations and faced heavy competition from synthetics. Even under such pressure, demand for glass remains steady in its key markets and is expected to continue to be used well into the future. Glass roll goods are used in markets such as filtration, roofing, insulation, battery separators and composites and these materials have also found their way into high end, niche applications.

Demand for glass nonwovens has steadily increased in recent years and has reached a modest growth rate of approximately 5%. Glass media producers and end use manufacturers are both reporting an increase in usage due to higher activity in construction, telecommunications and other industries. In 1999, the fiberglass insulation market reached $2.8 billion in North America alone and, with cell phone use dramatically rising, battery separators are also predicted to be in high demand. In addition to these increases, end use manufacturers are finding new ways to utilize the benefits of glass in existing markets, proving that, in spite of its reputation as a fiber with limitations, there may always be a place for glass media in nonwovens.

Contending With Synthetics
Over the years, glass has faced stiff competition from synthetics in the filtration market. According to some producers, glass has virtually knocked synthetics out of high efficiency filtration applications, but is losing the fight on the lower efficiency side of the market and battling it out for everything in between.

Commenting on this competition was R. Vijayakumar, director of marketing for high efficiency filter media at Hollingsworth & Vose, East Walpole, MA. “The level of competition between glass and synthetics is quite healthy. Glass dominates in higher efficiency applications but synthetics are used more in lower efficiency areas because of pricing. However, it’s very competitive in the middle efficiency area,” he said.

Juergen Binzer, sales manager for J.C. Binzer GmbH, Hatzfield, Germany, also discussed competition in the filtration segment, “There is a lot of competition between glass and synthetics in filtration. But when it comes to technical performance, the ratio for glass is much better than any competing synthetic in the higher filtration ranges. The higher the efficiency, the more unbeatable glass is.”

Robert Bender, sales director for Evanite Fiber, Corvallis, OR, offered a different perspective, “The competition story didn’t turn out as some people might have expected. Both glass and synthetics have found their own home. There seems to be a one-mindedness that glass can’t fit all demands, but the truth is, they both have particular benefits. If you’re not doing both synthetics and glass, you should be. These days it’s important to be a full range supplier.”

Steven Lister, general manager of filtration for Johns Manville, Denver, CO, characterized the role of glass in filtration as important despite lower pricing for synthetics in certain areas. “Eroding prices for synthetics this year has been very surprising in light of both polypropylene and polyester resin price escalation over the last year. Just the same, glass is strong and we have noticed a slowing in the conversion from glass to synthetic media in the ASHRAE segment, driven by product performance and application requirements,” he said.

As filtration manufacturers debate whether to use glass or synthetic media, roofing manufacturers are clearly in favor of glass. Shingle producers have been leaning toward glass as opposed to organic felts (made from wood, paper waste and by-products) and this trend is expected to continue. Robert Pine, vice president and general manager of Elk Corporation, Ennis, TX, described glass as dominant in shingle manufacturing. “Approximately 92% of shingles are made with glass. Glass is much more cost effective because it allows more output during production. There are less breaks and less overall problems using glass,” he commented.

Discussing other construction applications was Dick Lantz, president of roofing solutions business for Owens Corning, Toledo, OH. “With the growth of glass in commercial jobs, there’s been more glass usage in reinforcement for asphalt roofs and paved roads,” he said.

Old Markets, New Ideas
Even with increased demand in certain markets, manufacturers continue to search for new applications for glass media. With the increasing availability of technology, public awareness of health risks and an increased level of building construction, end use producers have seen an increasingly diverse range of uses for their glass nonwoven products.

One such area is the battery separator market, according to Mr. Lister of Johns Manville. “Over the last two years we have seen growth in the worldwide battery separator market. In order to use your cell phone, you need an uninterrupted power supply and the drive for battery separators has increased glass nonwovens usage,” he said.

Evanite’s Mr. Bender also attributed growth in the glass nonwovens segment to the telecommunications boom. “Lead acid batteries is a fast rising segment that is seeing unbelievable (10-15%) growth. These batteries use a glass nonwoven component as an extension of the filter and battery separator. The only drawback is its high cost. Otherwise, it has good separation effects,” Mr. Bender said.

In addition to the rise of the telecommunications market, increased construction activity has also helped glass nonwovens. “During the last couple of years there has been more construction activity in commercial and residential areas and this is benefitting the roofing market,” said Elk’s Mr. Pine. “Also, there is a trend toward laminated shingles, which use 30% more glass than standard three-tab shingles,” he added.

Glass nonwovens have also found their way into other construction segments, according to O-C’s Mr. Lantz, “Glass is being used in many different types of facers such as foam-type facers and accoustical ceiling board facers,” he said.

Also driving growth is a trend to combine glass with other raw fibers, said Christopher Coates, vice president, general manager of the Technical Specialties unit at Ahlstrom Filtration, Mount Holly Springs, PA. “The biggest growth in demand for glass products is in the composites market. Many manufacturers will combine glass microfiber with various substrates such as cellulose, spunbonded polyester and other nonwoven substrates to create products that offer the benefits of glass. This trend will continue, especially in niche markets such as medical and filtration applications where companies are looking for custom-designed products,” he said.

As producers continue to search the market for new applications for glass, some producers have high hopes for expanding glass usage in the filtration industry. One such manufacturer is Evanite’s Mr. Bender, “It’ll be hard to come up with new markets for glass media, but manufacturers need to look for extensions of old markets. Many look to the filtration area where there has been increased demand for cabin air filters in cars. Once used exclusively by luxury car manufacturers, now such filtration devices are available in almost all cars. Freudenberg has dominated that segment for the last eight years, but today it’s an open market. Automotive manufacturers are now looking to use near-HEPA filters for passenger compartments,” he said.

Roger Hattersley, North American representative for Bernard Dumas, Bergerac, France, also pointed to an increased use of air filters, particularly in the semiconductor area. “Air filters for cleanrooms have made a come-back over the last couple of years. We have seen improvement in the last two years ranging from 6-10% in volume,” he said.

Complementing markets such as filtration and roofing, glass nonwovens have also found their way into certain niche markets as well. Exemplifying this trend, Johns Manville’s Mr. Lister remarked on a new application for glass in media backings. “There’s going to be an emphasis on self-supporting pleated media. Glass will play an important role in this trend,” he predicted.

Mr. Pine of Elk mentioned the utilization of glass nonwoven backings as well, but for use in a different market. “Nonwoven fiberglass mats have also been used in carpet tiles as a stabilizer. Many manufacturers like glass because it has good tensile strength and rigidity,” he said.

Paying The Price
While manufacturers continue to search for new ideas, many have had to deal with availability and pricing issues as well. The good news is that the glass market has seen only moderate price increases within the last couple of years and an adequate raw material supply is forecast for the future. With the need for glass increasing steadily, many manufacturers are optimistic that supply will meet demand.

“There has been a plentiful supply of glass fiber,” said Dr. Vijayakumar of H&V. “Pricing for glass is pretty competitive with synthetics. Everyone reacted well after the decline of the Asian economy and with recovery underway, there shouldn’t be any problems meeting demand,” he said.

Mr. Lister of Johns Manville also speculated on price stability but warned of the threat of synthetics in air filtration media, “Microfiber pricing has been stable, supply has been adequate and companies are improving capacity utilization. However, air media pricing has been under significant pressure due to excess capacity in the synthetic portion of the business.”

“Pressure for price reduction is still strong,” said Ahlstrom’s Mr. Coates. “This is mostly due to an overcapacity of glass in the air filtration market that impacts the whole industry.”

Playing It Safe
One of the most scrutinized aspects of glass fiber has historically been the risk factors involved for those handling glass products. As a result, governments across the world have placed severe regulations on glass fiber, which could have potentially destroyed the glass business. Instead manufacturers have abided by the regulations and have actually seen glass recover from the stigma of being considered unsafe.

“Glass has been hyper-tested and has been subjected to far too much scrutiny since the asbestos scare in the late 1970’s,” commented Evanite’s Mr. Bender. “The alternatives to glass aren’t perfect either, but you don’t see them receiving as much criticism. Whether it be health, safety or performance, glass can compete with other fibers. The bottom line is: if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.

Even with rigid stipulations, European producers have not found an alternative to glass. “In Germany and all over Europe, glass is facing heightened pressure because of more stringent governmental regulations as far as occupational safety is concerned,” said Mr. Binzer of J.C. Binzer. “Even so, there is no strong move from users or converters to use other materials because replacement materials aren’t cost effective enough,” he stated.

Wrapping things up, Elk’s Mr. Pine explained that many manufacturers are looking for a product that uses more environmentally friendly binders than formaldehyde. “The only concern is to make the binder system more cost effective and then you’ll see most companies using these in the future,” he said.

What’s New From Suppliers?
J.C. Binzer GmbH will celebrate its 200th anniversary this year. The company produces about 30 million pounds of product each year for the filtration market and is also parent of Thueringer Filter Glass GmbH, Thuringia, Germany. Thueringer operates six production lines for very fine glass fibers, using three different technologies. The company manufactures glass fibers in a range of 0.2 to 3.0 microns.

Elk Corporation recently received International Conference of Building Materials (ICBM) approval for its non-asphaltic nonwoven fiberglass mat for coated underlayment applications. This is the first non-asphaltic coated glass mat to achieve this standard. The mat provides improved flame retardancy and a barrier against moisture.

Evanite is continuing its concentration on its “Nano-Fiber” glass fiber. The fiber is the smallest diameter offered by the company and is available for roofing, battery separator and filtration markets.

Johns Manville has completed the $40 million rebuild, conversion and expansion of its Etowah, TN furnace. The facility—where JM makes glass fiber that is converted to mat for its roofing substrate products—will upgrade output and product conversion from T-glass to E-glass in order to support market demand.

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