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The Modern Era of Technical Textiles

Classification, application, methods of processing, and finishing of technical textiles

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The technical textiles supply chain is a long and complex one, stretching from the manufacturers of polymers for technical fibers, coating, and specialty membranes through to the converters and fabricators who incorporate technical textiles into finished products or use them as an essential part of their industrial operations.

Technical Textile Finishing – Chemical Process

It has been suggested that by the end of 2000 some 50% of all textile fibre consumption in industrialised countries will be in technical textiles. A large percentage of this will consist of safety equipment and protective clothing and in fact this comprises the most significant portion of the technical textiles market. Protective clothing must provide resistance to the elements in the workplace, whilst at the same time providing comfort during wear.

The customers for these products demand strict compliance with the regulations designed to protect the wearer. One of the most important properties of this type of clothing is its resistance to small burning sources, thus flame resistance combined with easy cleaning is a most important consideration. The flame retardance must be maintained throughout the lifetime of the garment. The main regulation governing the use of flame-retardant technical textiles was the Furniture and Furnishing Fire Safety Regulations which were introduced into the UK in 1988.

Chemical processes

Durable flame-retardant treatments

Fire-retardant technical textiles have been developed from a variety of textile fibres, the choice of which is largely dependent on the cost of the fibre and its end- use. However, the main fibre in this area is cotton and thus treatments of this fibre will be discussed first. Two major flame-retardant treatments are popular. These are Proban (Rhodia, formerly Albright and Wilson) and Pyrovatex (Ciba).

The Proban process uses a phosphorus-containing material, which is based on tetrakis(hydroxymethyl)phosphonium chloride (THPC). This is reacted with urea and the reaction product is padded onto cotton fabric and dried. The fabric is then reacted with ammonia and finally oxidised with hydrogen peroxide.

The Proban process may be summarised as follows:

  1. Pad the fabric with Proban CC
  2. Dry the fabric to a residual moisture content of 12%.
  3. React the fabric with dry ammonia gas
  4. Oxidise the fabric with hydrogen peroxide
  5. Wash off and dry the fabric
  6. Soften the fabric

The actual chemistry of the process is fairly straightforward and the Proban forms an insoluble polymer in fibre voids and the interstices of the cotton yarn. There is no actual bonding to the surface of the cellulose, but the insoluble Proban polymer is held by mechanical means in the cellulose fibres and yarns. Because of this the Proban treated fabric has a somewhat harsh handle and some softening is usually required before the fabric is fit for sale.

The next method of forming a durable treatment for cellulose is by the use of Pyrovatex. This material is closely related to the crosslinked resins used in textile finishing and is in fact always applied with a crosslinked resin to form a chemical bond to the cellulose.

The Pyrovatex process may be summarised as follows:

  1. Pad the Pyrovatex mixture.
  2. Dry at 120°C.
  3. Cure at 160 °C for 3 min
  4. Wash in dilute sodium carbonate
  5. Wash in water
  6. Dry and stenter to width

As the reaction is with the cellulose, the flame-retardant substance is chemically bound to the fibre and is therefore durable. However, because the flame- retardant substance has to be applied with a crosslink resin, then the finished fabric has good dimensional stability and also excellent crease-recovery properties making this finish the one preferred for curtains. Unfortunately these desirable properties are not without disadvantages, the main one in the case of Pyrovatex being the loss in tear strength, which occurs with this and all cross linking systems.

Synthetic fibres with inherent flame-retardant properties

The Furniture and Furnishing (Fire) (Safety) Regulations12 made it mandatory that all upholstery materials should withstand the cigarette and match test as specified in BS 5852:1979: Pt1. This produced an enormous amount of work in the industry on possible routes which could be used to meet this legislation. These ranged from the use of materials that would not support combustion to chemical treatments and backcoating techniques. It is now clear, however, that backcoating is the main means by which these regulations are being met. Currently, some 5000 tonnes of backcoating formulations are being used in the UK for upholstery covers.

The majority of backcoating formulations are based on the well-known flame retardant effect of the combination of antimony(III) oxide and a halogen, which is usually bromine, although chlorine is also used to a lesser degree.

The synergistic mixture for this is one part of antimony(III) oxide to two parts of bromine containing organic compound. In addition, foaming agents are used which enable the use of foam application techniques, so that a minimum amount of penetration of the backcoating compound onto the face of the fabric is achieved. The use of foam application also enables higher precision in the weights applied and shorter drying times to be achieved. Thus Proban, Pyrovatex and backcoating with antimony/bromine compounds represent the major flame-retardant treatments for cellulose.

Water-repellent finishes

The early water-repellent finishes were all based on the application of a mixture of waxes, which were pliable at normal temperatures, applied to tightly woven cotton fabrics. These were, of course, well suited to sail cloth and protective clothing, but problems were encountered when the garments were cleaned. Therefore, the search was on for water-repellent treatments that were simple to apply but would also allow the treated fabrics to be cleaned.

It was noted early on that the heavy metal soaps did have water-repellent properties and therefore the first attempt at the production of a durable treatment was to use the chromium salt of a fatty acid, which was applied to cotton and then baked. This gave a certain durability to the fabric thus treated and the mechanism.

Antistatic finishes

Static electricity is formed when two dissimilar materials are rubbed together. It cannot be formed if identical materials are rubbed together. Thus when dissimilar materials are rubbed together a separation of charges occurs and one of the materials becomes positively charged and the other negatively charged. The materials at the top of the table will derive a positive charge when rubbed with any of the materials below them.

Cotton is a fibre that has very good antistatic properties on its own and presents few problems. This is because the natural water content of cotton is high (moisture contents of around 8% are commonly quoted), which provides the fibre with sufficient conductivity to dissipate any charge that might accumulate.

Antistatic treatments, therefore, are based on the principle of making the fibre conductive so that high charge densities are dissipated before sparks can form. This is done by the application of both anionic and cationic agents to the fibre. Typical structures of these materials are similar to the softening agents used for cotton, which contain a long chain hydrocarbon with an ionic group at the end.

One of the most interesting advances in the field of antistatic treatments has been the development of the permanent antistatic finishes, one of which was the Permolose finish developed by ICI.These are actually a series of finishes that consist of block copolymers of ethylene oxide and a polyester.When polyester fibres are treated with Permolose, the polyester block of the copolymer is adsorbed by the polyester fibre but the polyethylene oxide portion is incompatible with the polyester fibre and thus remains on the surface, where it attracts water and forms a conductive surface on the polyester fibre.

Antimicrobial and antifungal finishes

Problems of hygiene are coming more and more to the fore in textile finishing and it is now generally realised that a microbiocidal finish is very valuable in certain textiles for two reasons: as a prophylactic measure to avoid reinfections and as a deodorant. Perhaps at this stage it might be useful to define some of these terms:

  • Bacteriostatic: a chemical that inhibits the growth of bacteria. Fabric that has been impregnated with a bacteriostat will stop the growth of germs, which eventually die in
  • Fungistatic: a chemical that inhibits the growth of Bactericidal, fungicidal and microbicidal all mean that the chemical will kill these three types of microorganism.

Here are just a few of the many microorganisms with the infections they cause:

  • Staphylococcus aureus: found in mucus membranes, causes boils and abscesses
  • Pseudomonas pyocyanea: causes spots and boils
  • Trichophylon menagrophytes: fungus, which causes dermatomycosis of the feet
  • Candida albicans: yeast-like mould which is the main cause of thrush and foot

Areas of use

Microbicidal finishes are mainly used in textiles that are being handled continuously by a large number of people. Locations where these are used include, hotels, hospitals, asylums and student hostels, where mattress ticking, blankets and pillows, carpets and upholstery all come into contact with a large number of different individuals.

Any one of the following methods can be applied

  • exhaust
  • pad batch
  • continuous
  • spray

The normal add on depends on the efficiency of the particular product, but add- onweights of 1– 4% are commonly quoted.

  • Design
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