Nanofibers: Challenges or Opportunities?

By Karen Bitz McIntyre, Editor | August 6, 2012

As hygiene markets in the developed world continue to face saturation, nonwovens makers have taken a few tactics to ensure growth in the future. For some, the bet is that developing regions, like China, Southeast Asia or Africa, will offer impressive growth levels and that is where they are investing; while others have abandoned the hygiene game completely, intent to focus on technical applications that can offer more attractive growth and profit levels than disposable goods.

One area where the latter are focusing their attention is in nanotechnology, hoping the unique properties of these small-sized fibers can lead to new applications for their products. While this path is not without obstacles, several markets are already seeing promise.

One new product gaining nice traction is known as NLITe. Developed by a North Carolina research firm using U.S. Department of Energy funding, the product uses polymer nanofibers to increase the reflectivity of lighting fixtures, allowing them to provide more light with the same amount of energy. The technology has already attracted interest from a co-development partner who happens to be a major (unnamed) nonwovens producer and is gaining significant interest from lighting manufacturers, according to developers.

Essentially, the technology can be compared to freshly fallen snow in how it uses its small particle size to diffuse light across a range of surfaces.

The use of nanofibers, in nonwovens and other areas, has been controversial during the past several years. Some argue the small pore size can be damaging when inhaled while others say the technology is expensive and its benefits do not warrant the higher price point. However, in an industry like nonwovens, where innovation is a constant challenge, nanofibers have helped. In the case of NLITe, for instance, developers described the response from customers—both on the nonwovens end and in the lighting industry—as overwhelming, as they are so desperate for the next great thing.

Of course, it’s too soon to bill NLITe as that next big thing—it hasn’t even been commercialized yet—but the chances of nanofibers helping create that next big something, at least for nonwovens, seem to be getting better all the time.
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