The dire shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical workers confronting the COVID-19 crisis has prompted a deluge of creative collaborations inside and outside the plastics industry, all aimed at filling the need for masks, gowns, shields, hand sanitiser and more.
Now, PLA producer NatureWorks has joined forces with its long-time partner the Nonwovens Institute (NWI) at North Carolina State University (NC State), in an initiative that will enable the production of at least 10 million additional N95 surgical masks.
The NWI has converted the use of its research and training pilot production line to produce the face mask materials, and NatureWorks has donated the Ingeo resin needed to produce the material. NWI, which is globally recognised for its nonwovens innovation and expertise, developed a new technology that will allow as many as 2 million N95 masks to be made per week from a new spunbond nonwoven structure.
What sets these masks apart is the fact that, due to the technology developed by NWI, they are actually reusuable.
Typical N95 respirators and surgical masks are a multi-layer structure of one or two spunbond nonwoven layers that provide mask shape and protect the inner filtration layer. Those layers are combined with an electrostatically charged layer of meltblown nonwoven material which serves as the filtration layer capturing microscopic unwanted particles such as viruses and bacteria. The charge is what boosts the meltblown’s filtering capabilities, but it also means that the masks cannot be reused since the charge can be lost during the cleaning process.
“Because of the COVID-19 crisis, we took the spunbond technology and created a new generation of unique filters that have excellent filtering capability without needing to be charged, meaning they can potentially be reused after cleaning with peroxide, or an alcohol solution,” said Behnam Pourdeyhimi, executive director of NWI, Wilson College of Textiles associate dean for industry research and extension, and William A. Klopman distinguished professor.
The new nonwoven fabric, which can be cut and sewn by traditional techniques, is a bicomponent fibre made of Ingeo biopolymer (PLA) and polypropylene (PP), providing significant strength and bulk with equal effectiveness in filtration. Ingeo also improves the productivity of the spunbond process by at least 30%.
NWI will supply the new spunbond nonwoven material to several key partners, who will produce the masks at their manufacturing facilities, after which these will be distributed to local communities in need.
NC State has also ordered machines that will allow NWI to make surgical masks in its Centennial Campus facilities. Those machines should arrive in the next month.
The Nonwovens Institute is the world’s first accredited academic program for the interdisciplinary field of engineered fabrics. NatureWorks has been supporting NWI for over ten years and is also currently part of the institute’s executive committee.