Up In Flames

By Ellen Wuagneux, Associate Editor | April 12, 2007

upgraded flame retardants bump up the performance of nonwovens in both residential and industrial end uses

From bedding, furniture and window treatments to protective apparel and automotives, flame retardants continue to play a vital role in a host of nonwoven applications. This is why suppliers to these markets are concentrating their efforts on tweaking fiber blends, upgrading additives and developing brand new chemical advances to create the most effective fire barrier materials possible. While current standards have done much to determine, and even drive, the performance levels of flame retardants, future mandates are expected to have a dramatic impact on the industry, particularly in bedding applications.

In this area, a new mattress flammability standard from CPSC (Consumer Products Safety Commission) is set to take effect, establishing performance requirements that are largely unchanged from the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which was issued in January 2005. Effective July 1, 2007, the new 16 CFR Part 1633 standard is designed to minimize/ delay flashover (when a fire becomes so hot that it begins to feed off the oxygen in the room and grows exponentially). The standard requires manufacturers to test specimens of each of their mattress prototypes before mattresses based on that design may be introduced into commerce.

Applying to mattress sets manufactured, imported or renovated on or after July 1, 2007, the new rule requires a full-scale test using a pair of T-shaped gas burners designed to represent burning bedclothes. The mattress set must not exceed a peak heat release rate of 200 kW at any time during a 30-minute test, and the total heat release for the first 10 minutes of the test must not exceed 15 megajoules.

According to Jessica Franken, associate director of government affairs for INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, the CPSC standard is similar to TB 603, the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation’s open flame fire standard for mattresses/mattress/box spring sets/futons that went into effect in January 2005. “The standards differ in the limits they place on total energy release in the first 10 minutes of the test—CPSC’s standard sets a stricter limit of 15 megajoules, while TB 603 sets the limit at 25 megajoules,” she stated.
Commenting on the impact of the new standards in the bedding industry was Ryan Trainer, executive vice president of ISPA, International Sleep Products Association. “The industry is working hard to meet the new federal rules. In most cases, the new rules will require mattress producers to build their products somewhat differently and maintain more records regarding the testing and manufacture of those products.”

Mr. Trainer also said that at the state level, a number of legislatures in addition to California have considered setting their own mattress flammability standards. However, one of the industry’s primary objectives over the last several years has been to avoid an inconsistent patchwork of different and possibly conflicting state rules by supporting the development of a uniform national rule that is effective, practical and allows the mattress industry to make products that will be both comfortable and affordable for the consumer.
As a result, no state rules other than TB603 in California are in place at the moment regarding mattress flammability requirements. The Louisiana state attorney general’s office recently announced that the CPSC’s 1633 rules nullify a 2006 law passed in that state that may have set a separate standard for mattresses sold there. However, New Jersey is expected to pass a new law later this month that would enforce the CPSC’s 1633 standard in that state, with no other changes made. Finally, bills have been introduced this year in Pennsylvania and New York that would set mattress standards in those states. “It is not clear at present if either of these bills are likely to pass this term, but the CPSC’s 1633 standard will preempt any inconsistent state rules,”  Mr. Trainer said.

In the upholstered furniture sector, the impact of regulations is less certain as the status of federal upholstered furniture flammability standards is still in limbo. According to INDA’s Ms. Franken, CPSC staff forwarded a briefing package describing regulatory options, including a staff draft performance standard and several possible alternatives, to the commission in January 2006. Although the semi-annual regulatory agenda released by the Commission this spring indicated major action was expected in August 2006, no such action has materialized to date. One thing that may be contributing to delays is the fact that CPSC chairman Harold Stratton left the agency in July 2006; CPSC can only operate without the required quorum of three commissioners for six months at a time; that period expired in mid-January.

While The White House recently announced its intent to nominate Michael Baroody, (current executive vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers) to serve as chairman. Mr. Baroody still has to go through the formal Senate confirmation process. “It is unclear when that will happen and what his chances are for gaining Senate approval,” said Ms. Franken. “In the meantime, the CPSC staff continues its work and forwarded a status update regarding technical research on standard test materials and statistical and economic issues to the commission in November 2006. The CPSC released a briefing package in February describing results of a peer review of their research. Response from peer review was ‘generally favorable’ and resulted in only some minor changes,” she said.

Richard Knowlson, new business development manager for flame retardant supplier Huntsman Textile Effects, said that the nonwovens industry as a whole continues to watch the CPSC activities in the area of furniture and upholstery. “Depending on the outcome of their decisions, the industry will have significant opportunities to further improve the products that are currently available. The CPSC has also been looking at the CA TB 604 regulations for top of the bed fabrics. Broader adoption of these regulations could drive more use of flame retardant chemicals and fibers.”

Impact To Spread Like Wildfire

In anticipation of both changing requirements and evolving customer demands, suppliers are introducing new innovations as well as upgrades to existing sleep-related products. A downside to the significant impact of these standards is a less stable, more fragmented business environment for manufacturers. “The flame retardant market has been very volatile over the last two years,” opined Mr. Knowlson. “The mattress regulations caused many companies to scramble for new FR barrier solutions, and many different product formats have been developed, resulting in a fragmented market place.”

On the positive side, as the mattress industry prepares for the new requirements, suppliers of various components used to meet the standard have improved the effectiveness, ease of use, comfort and value of their products. “Suppliers have been key in helping the industry adjust to these changes,” said ISPA’s Mr. Trainer. “Our suppliers have been critical partners in helping mattress producers meet those objectives.”

Mr. Trainer added that producers are fulfilling the new fire performance requirements by using a variety of fire barriers that essentially encapsulate the foam cushioning materials, which are the main fuel load in a finished mattress. “The barrier materials either prevent heat from the outside of a burning mattress from penetrating into the foam interior, deprive the foam of the oxygen needed to burn the foam, or a combination of the two. Woven, knitted and nonwoven materials are being used in these fire barrier applications,” he said.

“Many of the products now being used to meet the California and CPSC standards use technologies that were developed years ago for use in other industries,” continued Mr. Trainer. “As the mattress industry and others learn more about the specific dynamics of mattress fires, these established technologies are being adjusted and refined to be more effective in a mattress context.”

One company keeping upcoming flammability regulations in mind is Apexical, Spartanburg, SC. The company has rolled out Flameproof 7125, which is a fully formulated, ready-to-use, water-based product. “This coating formulation was developed with softness of hand in mind,” remarked technical marketing manager John Phifer, “so that it could be used as a back coating for ticking and upholstery fabrics to enable mattresses and upholstered products to pass the new burn test standards developed by the state of California and the CPSC.”

When activated by the heat of a flame, the coating forms an intumescent (charred) thermal barrier that is effective in reducing the amount of heat transmitted through it. This reduction in heat prevents those materials behind the fabric, coated with Flameproof 7125, from igniting. In addition to its barrier properties, it contains a flame retardant package to help resist ignition and/or sustained burning of the fabric face. Apexical is also testing new monomers for incorporation into polyester and nylon chains to impart improved FR characteristics.

“Obviously, the introduction of new regulations in bedding has had an unbelievable impact on our business in terms of opportunities for growth,” commented Mr. Phifer. “I think it is inevitable that these are extended to or expanded in other market sectors, particularly home and office furnishings. There also appears to be a transition underway to extend the penetration of nonwovens into markets that traditionally used woven and knit fabrics.” Examples, he said,  are transportation, hospitality, industrial and institutional sectors. Mr. Phifer added that the transition in the U.S. from knit and wovens to nonwovens is being driven by cost and the economics for the finishing and functional chemistries that provide the desired effects are expected to follow.

At Ciba Specialty Chemicals, increasing demands on flame retardant performance prompted by new and proposed FR regulations has led the company to develop a new generation of non-halogenated, melt processable flame retardants now being tested by customers with higher demanding applications. “These new products demonstrate a higher level of FR performance without sacrificing any fiber properties,” stated Paul Shields, NAFTA marketing manager—fibers industry, plastic additives. “They also provide outstanding levels of UV stability to polyolefins as opposed to traditional FR products that are actually deleterious to UV stability.”

“With these new products, we feel it will be possible to meet the FR requirements of most existing as well as anticipated new FR standards from CPSC and California,” he said. “Our new products will allow polyolefin fabrics to self-extinguish and potentially play an increased role in residential furnishings.” Ciba also offers Flamestab NOR 116 the company’s first non-halogenated, melt processable flame retardant for polyolefins, which has been seeing increasing success in a variety of applications including automotive, construction and industrial fabrics.

Also in the bedding market, Basofil Fibers, Enka, NC, is actively engaged in new product activity in preparation for the upcoming standards. “Product development by suppliers will always be ongoing,” said Jennifer Brust, sales and marketing manager, “but at this point, most discussion is based around proven products and finalizing programs in time for the July implementation date. In the industry in general, we see more reliance on the FR supplier to provide prototype testing of its product that customers can then use in their certification process.”

According to Ms. Brust, Basofil Fibers is also seeing bedding customers shifting emphasis from finding technical solutions that pass CPSC’s new standard to the internal quality control and recordkeeping requirements incorporated in the standard. “There are many new requirements being placed on the manufacturers in this regard and it will take time and money on their part to comply,” she said.

Ms. Brust also pointed to a movement toward inherently FR products, as opposed to chemically treated products, as quality control and FR permanence issues gain closer scrutiny. In response, Basofil Fibers now offers a FR stitchbonded nonwoven that combines economics with its robust Alessandra yarn technology. The new product can be used as a flame barrier or printable FR ticking. “This may be the most economical, inherently flame resistant product being offered to the mattress market,” she opined. Basofil’s customers also offer FR knit tubes for viscofoam mattresses and FR matelasse ticking for luxurious tickings that require no additional underlying FR barrier.

At Huntsman Textile Effects, over the past two years the company has introduced two flame retardant products, Pyrovatim PBS and Flovan CGN, both of which have been tested to meet the new CFR 1633 regulations. Featuring high whiteness and low dusting characteristics, Pyrovatim  PBS  is a unique phosphate product that can be used as a non-durable or a soak durable product. Flovan CGN is a multipurpose phosphate flame retardant that creates a highly insulating char barrier for a range of fibers and constructions.

Beyond Bedding

While much ado has been made over federal and state regulations and their impact on the U.S. bedding industry, several other important nonwovens applications are also taking advantage of flame retardant technology. Today, home furnishings such as window treatments and upholstered furniture feature flame retardants as do certain automotive components, electronics, office furniture and industrial work apparel, firefighting gear and emergency response suits.

In terms of growth sectors, suppliers report that the industrial protective apparel market in Europe and the electric arc protection market in the U.S. are currently expanding. Also, both the U.S. and Europe have revised standards for firefighting garments, which are bringing about changes in terms of products and product combinations.

Targeting protective apparel, medical and construction end uses is a new product from Norafin GmbH, a member of Jacob Holm Group. The 3D Performance Fabric traps air in the material to enhance insulation properties and thus improve safety and comfort. In cooperation with its fiber suppliers, Norafin offers a variety of product options based on a number of fiber mixtures. “Since product requirements range from fabrics needed in industry workwear or civil protection to fabrics used to facilitate first response, we have started to look into the development of 3D fabrics based on para-aramid and HDPE fibers that enable us to offer protection against chemicals, acids and stabs,” commented Andre Lang, president.  

Mr. Lang added that Norafin is also looking into a three-layer composite. “One layer comprises airlock and thus improves insulation properties or breathability and is covered with a spunlace topsheet layer that offers flame resistance,” he said. “Thanks to the multi-layer option and the spunlaced fabrics used, the product not only shows enhanced insulation but also increases comfort. In addition, we are working on a flat layer, which is after-treated and used in the bedding market.”

In the protective apparel arena, Huntsman Textile Effects is supplying high end products for protective workwear applications. “Huntsman offers wash-durable phosphorus-based chemistries that are being used for protective workwear,” said Mr. Knowlson. “Additionally, there is much attention to the changes and new formats within the automotive insulation arena where flame retardancy is a critical property.”

In the home furnishings market, Basofil is raising the bar by offering additional features beyond flame retardancy such as soft hand, excellent moisture resistance and silent performance. The company now has available a siliconized melamine fiber for home furnishing applications. “By offering this fiber we are expanding our product line beyond more typical utilitarian FR fibers to an FR fiber that enhances the end product with added features,” stated Ms. Brust.  

When it comes to adhesives, Sumter, SC-based Ems-Griltech, a business unit of Ems-Chemie (North America) Inc., has developed copolyester products for use in applications requiring additional flame retardancy. “Previously mostly halogenated flame retarding agents, in combination with antimony trioxide, have been used when treating for flame retardancy in polymers,” observed Karen Hesselbart, sales support manager. “This led to high densities of toxic and corrosive gasses when burning. The Griltex FR adhesive products are halogen- and antimony-free with low emissions, no corrosive gases and are recyclable,” she added.

The melting point of the Griltex FR products is between 100°C and 130°C. The Griltex products come in both granular and powder forms and can be applied using extrusion rollers and melt tanks or scatter coating the powder. This allows the FR to be applied during the manufacturing process, thereby reducing labor and manufacturing time.

Ms. Hesselbart went on to say that the company’s technical engineers are finding that most flame retardants in bedding end uses are added to the nonwoven itself, thereby reducing the need for the flame retardant added to the adhesive in this sector. Outside of the bedding sector, Ems-Griltech is finding increasing interest for flame retardancy in office furniture, automotive interiors and electronics.

In the area of protective apparel, Norafin GmbH is seeing demand for flame retardancy as well as an expanding array of other requirements. “Up to now, fire protection was one of the core aspects required in protective apparel,” said Mr. Lang. “Nowadays, customer requirements are much more diverse and range from performance apparel used in hazardous work environments to apparel that protects against assaults. Therefore, we have started to extend our range of products to include protection against acids, chemicals and stabs and we are investigating materials that support NBC resistance,” he said.

Cost Control

When asked about the effect such additional requirements will ultimately have on the price tag of the protective apparel garment, Mr. Lang explained that the company achieves cost-effectiveness through increased product homogeneity and reduced weights. “A homogeneous surface shows improved pore size distribution, which leads to enhanced product resistance. Maintaining the product’s functions while decreasing the overall weight by reducing the layers needed helps reduce costs primarily with regard to raw materials consumed in performance apparel.”

In addition, the company’s technology enables it to combine two different layers in one process without the use of binders by entangling the layers with water. “This certainly represents an advantage especially when working with flame retardants and also helps us enhance efficiency and environmental compatibility. As it is important to us to offer all-encompassing product solutions, we elaborate product concepts by considering the entire product chain. This requires intense cooperation with our partners,” said Mr. Lang.

Cost efficiency was also on the mind of Apexical’s Mr. Phifer. “Any cost reductions in the fiber/fabric formation process that can be achieved en route to making a value-added product are always attractive. Our durable FR products Flameproof 1503 and Flameproof 1528 are examples of adapting the product to existing technologies. Flameproof 1503 is used in disperse-dyed PET packages to impart FR properties. Since it penetrates the fiber very deeply in competing for dye sites, it also allows the user to reduce the amount of expensive dyes needed to match shades. Flameproof 1528 has been used to give polyester fabrics durable FR characteristics via pad thermosol heat set application; application to the towband between crimping and heat set to give FR characteristics to needlepunched nonwovens would eliminate a step in the process downstream.” He added that Apexical is focusing its efforts on working with customers to be alert to opportunities to reduce costs in production. This can take the form of reducing raw material costs, operation and cycle times, curing temperatures, or eliminating production steps.

For many suppliers, increasing value means adding functional benefits to products. “Another focus in the industry involves the development of combination coatings and finishes that offer multiple functionality with one system,” said Mr. Knowlson. “For example, we have developed water and oil repellent finishes that can be combined with flame retardant finishes. This combination ensures that the two effects—repellency and flame retardancy—do not interfere with each other and maintain the performance one would expect.”

Wrapping up, Mr. Trainer of ISPA pointed to the cost-savings and added value nonwoven materials can bring to a final product. “Of course, mattress producers—like other manufacturers—will gear their production and technology to be as cost-effective as possible while still meeting the relevant safety and other requirements of law. Some nonwoven materials have comfort characteristics that are comparable to foam or other fiber components used in conventional mattresses. As a result, manufacturers have found that they can lower the net cost increase of using some nonwoven fire barriers because the amount of other resilient materials used in the mattress can be reduced,” he said.