Fighting Fire With... Technology

By Ellen Wuagneux, Associate Editor | June 14, 2006

the market for flame retardants is heating up as new innovative components hit the scene


The flame retardants business may be hot right now but raw material suppliers across the globe are staying cool. Between new regulations at the state and federal levels as well as emerging state-of-the-art technologies, new requirements and challenges are hitting the industry at an unprecedented pace.

According to market insiders, areas of particular growth for flame retardant (FR) technologies are North and Central America as well as Europe. “This kind of interest heralds continued growth in our market and an ongoing need for innovative solutions,” stated John Phifer, technical marketing manager for Spartanburg, SC-based Apexical, Inc., formerly Apex Chemicals Corporation. “There is particular interest in the technologies needed to pass the new California/CPSC bedding standards and in non-halogen-based FR treatments,” he said.

While California is certainly proving to be a hotbed of activity in this sector, the rest of the country is following closely behind. According to Bob McKinnon, CEO of Basofil Fibers, Charlotte, NC, “California, of course, is leading the way due to the 2005 implementation of 603, but with passage of 16 CFR part 1633 (the Federal standard) we are beginning to see a much greater degree of FR activity in the balance of the country.”

By the end of 2006, most major producers of bedding are expected to be active and ready to ship compliant products, he added.

Going forward, the efforts of CPSC and the state of California are expected to lead to the publication of flammability standards that apply to not only bedding but also residential upholstery and insulated bed clothing. “Depending on how the standards are written, the use of flame retardants or barrier fabrics will be favored,” predicted Paul Shields, NAFTA marketing manager for Ciba’s plastic additives business. “Flame retardant products that provide the needed FR effect in an economical fashion may prove to be the most cost-effective approach,” he said.

Cost Is Still Key

Despite growth prospects, cost concerns loom large in the flame retardants market, especially as energy and raw material prices continue to soar. At Basofil Fibers, one key cost reduction strategy has been manufacturing blends that typically call for less high performance fiber and more commodity products. “This has made a measurable difference in our costs over the years,” commented Mr. McKinnon.

In the area of home furnishings, Basofil has created a new product that specifically targets FR needs. Named HF100, it is more than 20% less expensive than its predecessor and  is used almost exclusively in nonwoven applications. “With the extensive blending formulas we have invented,    our inherent FR blends provide safe science for the marketplace at very reasonable prices,” Mr. McKinnon said. He added that these, along with all other products containing Basofil, are non-toxic and require no chemical sprays, immersions or other treatments. Further, the products are consistent and,  if properly applied, are designed to meet test requirements all the time. That is not the case with some chemically treated solutions, pointed out Mr. McKinnon.

For Apexical, cost effectiveness has been a result of working closely with customers to develop products that are tailored to their applications. “This approach has never been more critical than now when cost-effective technology is needed, particularly for technical nonwovens,” Mr. Phifer said. “We continue to see additional price increases for our formulation components. Record oil prices are certainly no help. However, raw material costs are also being driven by reduced supply resulting from Asian market consumption.”

According to Ciba’s Mr. Shields, the need for lower concentrations has aided in lowering costs overall. “Our products are useful at very low concentrations compared to traditional flame retardants employed in polyolefins,” he said. “They are also melt processable, allowing nonwovens producers to make FR fabrics without having to reduce line speeds. Non-melting products frequently cannot be used in such fine fibers. As a result, FR fabrics can be produced in a single nonwovens operation with no need for secondary treatments.”

Another path to cost reduction for Ciba has been avoiding secondary operations such as backcoatings. “Often, because of a lack of effective melt processable flame retardant products, designers have relied on other means of providing the needed level of flame retardance to their products, such as through the use of heavy and inflexible backcoatings,” remarked Mr. Shields. “These new flame retardants allow nonwovens to be produced economically with no need for such secondary operations. They can be considered for use in an array of applications since their performance is not encumbered by the flame retardant.”

What’s New?

Top: This mattress is  protected with an Alessandra Matelasse ticking from Basofil. Bottom: Untreated PET (left) versus PET treated with 10% (owg) Apexical 1528 in an NFPA 701 small scale test.
When it comes to rolling out new products, suppliers of flame retardants have been quick to take advantage of opportunities in the market. One such company is Apexical, which offers a full line of flame retardant chemistries for textile applications, including nonwovens. The company has recently introduced Apexical Pyrapex, a new non-halogen, high-phosphorous content melt soluble flame retardant for polyesters and nylons. Owing to its polymer melt solubility, Pyrapex is particularly attractive as an additive in bicomponent nonwoven applications requiring flame retardant protection.

Innovation at Basofil Fibers comes in the form of several new categories of products including cost-effective FR thread for bedding, top of the bed and upholstery. In addition to nonwoven highloft and needlepunch products, the company is in the process of introducing affordable wet laid fabric for the bottom of no-flip mattresses and foundations; and self-extinguishing ticking fabrics for bed pillows and other top of bed products as well as low- to mid-priced mattresses and foundations. Beyond the bedding sector, Basofil products also find application in products for firefighters’ outergear, industrial work wear, filtration, military end uses and automotive components.

For its part, Ciba supplies Ciba Flamestab NOR 116, a melt processable non-halogenated flame retardant that has demonstrated excellent FR effect in polyolefin fibers, including nonwovens. Commercial applications include many in the automotive and construction areas. The company has also seen growth in industrial and outdoor fabrics due to the improved UV stability of its flame retardants. “The old Catch 22 of having FR performance but no UV stability or UV stability with no FR performance no longer holds true,” pointed out Mr. Shields. “This new FR approach changes the way these kind of products can be designed,” he said. Mr. Shields added that new products, both halogenated and non-halogenated, are in development that will provide even higher levels of FR performance. These are also melt-processable products. 

Ems-Griltech, Sumter, SC, offers flame retardant copolyester hot melt adhesives in the form of granules and powders sold under the trade name Griltex. These adhesives can be applied to fabrics or nonwovens to provide FR protection. The adhesives are currently being used in home and office furniture and furnishings (such as carpet and curtains) as well as in various protective clothing applications and masterbatching.

The products are part of the company’s response to a trend toward the  incorporation of flame protection in hotmelt adhesives. “Until  now, often  only  the  combustion behavior of  a composite’s separate components  was  analyzed, disregarding the behavior of the whole  composite,” offered Karen Hesselbart, sales support manager. “However,  for some time now flame tests have been performed on complete component parts or even on whole rooms, such as train wagons.” Ms. Hesselbart added that special regulations, which require the use of flame retarding agents for hotmelt  adhesives,  exist  mainly  in  the  areas of construction,  traffic,  electronics  and furniture. “Experiments with flame  retardant  hotmelt   adhesives  from  Ems-Griltech  show  an improvement of the composites´ placement within the fire standards,” she said.

Forecast For FR

Looking ahead, suppliers emphasized the role quality and safety should play over cost concerns. “Newer, safer and better science will prevail and likely at more conservative price points,” predicted Mr.  McKinnon of Basofil. “The industry must remain mindful that the health and safety of consumers is of utmost importance. For the sake of spending a couple more dollars on building a mattress, manufacturers can provide the security and durability that they should if they use reliable, inherent protection,” he concluded.

A continued move away from halogen-based materials is also expected, which is partially due to increasing political pressure on polymer additives such as  plasticizers,  stabilizers  and  halogenated  flame retarding  agents. Until  now, halogenated  flame retarding agents  have  typically been used  for  the  flame protection of thermoplastic polymers, often in combination with antimony trioxide. “Products  containing  halogen  lead  to  high  densities of toxic and corrosive  gases when burning and complicate the recycling of the end products,” explained Ms. Hesselbart of Ems-Griltech. “The flame retardant copolyesters of Ems-Griltech enable  improved  flame  protection  without  making  use  of flame retarding  agents containing halogen or heavy metals,” she concluded.

FR Innovations From Asia Pacific Suppliers

Fabric made with Kanecaron( left) versus fireproof polyester (right). The polyester melts and therefore causes the flame to spread while Kanecaron does not ignite, according to Kaneka.
• Based in Osaka, Japan, Kaneka Corporation manufactures Kanecaron brand modacrylic fiber. Containing 35-85% acrylonitrile, the fiber is flame resistant, flexible and easy to dye. For Kanecaron fiber to burn, it must have oxygen, and the amount of oxygen in the air exceeds that in the fiber. In other words, if there is no flame, it will not burn by itself. Furthermore, when combined with a highly burnable natural fiber such as cotton, Kanecaron maintains its flame-resistant quality at the time of combustion. This flame-resistant quality reacts against the flammable quality of the natural fiber and slows down the speed of burning, thus isolating the air and stopping combustion. Many synthetic fibers melt when heated, turning to liquid fibers that drip and stick to the skin, which can cause severe skin burns. Kanecaron fiber does not liquefy even if it burns; all it does is carbonize and shrink slightly. Therefore, the possibility of injury is eliminated, according to the company.

Kanecaron’s “No Dripping, No Melting” qualities and self-extinguishing qualities (it actually carbonizes to prevent flames from spreading) ultimately safeguard the end user’s environment.

The fibers’ Limited Oxygen Index (LOI), which directly measures the self-extinguishability of the fiber, ranges from LOI 28-38, and outshines those of more conventional natural and synthetic fibers, according to Kaneka. Furthermore, flame retardancy doesn’t deteriorate with washing, unlike other products. Kanecaron’s versatility allows for blending with non-flame-retardant fibers at appropriate ratios to create fabrics that offer peace of mind to the end user.

• New from the textile fibers division of Japanese supplier Toyobo is Toyobo Heim flame retardant fiber. Made up of both filament and staple fibers, the polyester is produced by a raw fiber reforming method in which the flame retarder is copolymerized at the raw fiber manufacturing process. Since a raw fiber itself is flame retardant, Toyobo Heim has more stable flame retardancy compared with post-processed flame preventive products. Toyobo Heim’s flame retardant performance is long lasting and can endure repetitive domestic washing and/or dry cleaning. Toyobo Heim features excellent self extinguishing characteristics and generates less gas and smoke with low toxicity. The fiber does not easily absorb water and dries quickly after washing. Featuring excellent dimensional stability, Toyobo Heim is difficult to crease, does not require ironing and is resistant to sunlight, chemicals, insects and mold, according to the company.

• Chinese polyester supplier Nantong Luolai Chemical Fiber Co., Ltd., Nantong City, Jiangsu Province, specializes in the manufacture of three-dimensional spiral short chemical fibers. The company supplies Luolai brand flame retardant PSF (shown here at top right). Due to phosphorus fire retardant compounds added in polymerization, the flame retardant fibers allow for frequent washing and dying. These fibers are most commonly used for bedding, garments and furniture.

• Another Chinese supplier of flame retardant fibers is Jiangyin Changlong Chemical Fiber Co., Ltd., Jiangyin City, Jiangsu Province. The company manufactures Everblaze flame retardant fiber in 32-152 mm cut lengths (shown here at bottom right). The company also supplies bicomponent fiber, antistatic fibers, PTT fiber and island-in-the-sea fiber.