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Superabsorbent review: an absorbing year.

Superabsorbent Review: An Absorbing Year

as the U.S. superabsorbent industry heads towards maturity, many suppliers are looking overseas for new markets; while several new products have been introduced, most producers are concentrating on improving current technology and design As recently as five years ago, the notion of superabsorbents in baby diapers was not much more than a gleam in the eye of a forward-thinking executive. Then the market exploded and tremendous growth in a short period of time characterized the superabsorbent market. Now, as the waves of technology appear to be calming, producers are turning their focus to product enhancement and the search for new markets.

Several new developments, from a superabsorbent foam to a needle-punched nonwoven incorporating a superabsorbent to a superabsorbent that does not utilize acrylic acid, have been developed in the past year. But, overall, the trend is towards working with what is already available, making it better and more suited to a wider variety of markets.

As superabsorbents gain popularity in Europe, many U.S. producers are turning eyes across the sea to invade a not-yet saturated market. A rash of joint ventures and foreign expansions indicates an internationalization towards foreign markets that are still growing and are open to U.S. imports.

Raw material shortages caused concern in the past few years as a result of the unexpected demand for acrylic acid, a major component of superabsorbents. Most superabsorbent producers see a light at the end of the tunnel, however, and predict a loosening of the market over the next year or two. Right now the situation still remains constricted.

A sharing of technology indicates the maturation of an industry that has become less fearful about exposing proprietary knowledge. Companies are agreeing to agree, not trying to do it all on their own, and they are benefitting from new technology and markets around the globe.

It appears that this has been the case in recent months, as a number of foreign expansions and joint ventures between American and foreign companies for the production of superabsorbents take shape.

Japan was among the first to employ superabsorbent technology in baby diapers, perhaps because of the high cost of fluff pulp in Japan. Superabsorbents in Japanese diapers lowered costs as well as increased product quality. The movement quickly caught on in the U.S., but the technology did exist well before demand erupted. Dow Chemical, Midland, MI, once held a since-expired patent on superabsorbent technology, the company's marketing manager Ron Hurd told Nonwovens Industry, but there was never any market driving force pushing for it until recently.

Now Europe is going through the stage the U.S. went through a few years ago. Most companies have superabsorbents in diapers and the potential for growth is still large. "Europe is adding plants and capacity, but there is still a difference in supply and demand," said Mr. Hurd. This supply is being met in many cases by imports. The abundance of joint ventures is another answer to the demand question. If it is true, as Mr. Hurd suggests, that "Europe still has one-and-a-half to two years significant growth before it hits the maturation phase," now is the time for companies to get in on the ground floor.

Many companies are doing just that. BASF, Ludwigshafen, West Germany, recently signed a joint venture agreement, beginning in early 1990, with Nippon Shokubai Kagaku Kogyo to take over distribution of the Japanese superabsorbent in Europe and the Near East. BASF is also building a superabsorbent plant with a 12,000 ton annual capacity in Germany that should start production in early 1991.

Chemdal, Arlington Heights, IL, is in the testing stages with its U.K. plant that began construction last year. The plant is expected to enter commercial production in the third quarter of this year, sales manager Larry Washow said. The U.K. facility will be used to supply European markets.

Chemdal has also established a joint venture with Reibel Participaciones, Sao Paulo, Brazil, for the manufacture and marketing of superabsorbent polymers to South American countries. Construction of the plant will begin early next year and is expected to be up and running by mid-1990. Chemdal owns a 60% interest in the venture.

A joint development project for a superabsorbent fiber is also underway between Courtaulds Fibres, Coventry, UK, and Allied Colloids Ltd., Yorkshire, UK. The project is currently in the development stages, but it is expected that commercial trials will be running within the next year.

The Courtaulds' fiber is based on acrylate technology and uses a different polymer system than other superabsorbent fibers. It is said to have a saline absorption capacity of up to 40 times its own weight. The new fiber, as yet unnamed, performs well in needlepunched applications and, although it is not thermoplastic, can be used in blended webs with other fibers such as polypropylene for heat bonded nonwovens. Patents have been applied for worldwide.

New Product Introductions

While most superabsorbent producers have welcomed the calming of the sea of technology developments in the superabsorbent field, there were still a number of product introductions and patent applications filed in the past year.

* Hoechst Celanese, Portmouth, VA, in conjunction with the Technical Products Group of Foamex, Eddystone, PA, has filed for a patent for a three dimensional superabsorbent foam product that combines the gelling effect of superabsorbent powders with the uniform, three dimensional structure similar to that found in specialty polyurethanes. Applications include personal are products and packaging.

Another superabsorbent product, IM 5600, is also new from Hoechst Celanese. IM 5600 is targeted for application in the adult incontinence market.

* Commercial production was scheduled to begin last month on Arco's "Fibersorb" superabsorbent fiber. The fiber, unique in that it does not use acrylic acid in its manufacture, will have applications in the disposables, industrial and filtration fields. "We are targeting multiple markets where fabrics with superabsorbent fiber capabilities are required," said Michael Dewsbury, of Arco. Fibersorb is made of a nontoxic, non-acrylic based polymer and, while it will be used in some diaper applications, specialty applications will be its target market.

* A superabsorbent fabric for shipping blood and packaging food was introduced this year by Bernard Obenski & Co., Berwyn, PA. The needlepunched nonwoven product, produced in conjunction with Malik Industries, Malvern, PA, utilizes superabsorbent fibers, films and polymers for specialty applications. The advanced needlepunched process incorporates a superabsorbent fiber and a synthetic polypropylene or polyester to make a nonwoven fabric; variations using powder and film superabsorbents have also been developed.

And Old Product Updates

As some superabsorbent manufacturers introduced new products, many others continued to concentrate on products already available, using product enhancement as the key to future growth.

* Stockhausen, Greensboro, NC, continues to improve upon its "Favor" superabsorbent powder technology, used primarily in diaper and hygiene applications. "We are constantly looking at new approaches and new ideas," said Michael Ensley, head of Stockhausen's textile department. Concern over recent biodegradability questions also has producers working on a realistic biodegradable superabsorbent, said Mr. Ensley. This, he said, is "no small task." For this reason, too, producers are all looking at niche markets as a safety valve.

* Hoechst Celanese has exclusive marketing and manufacturing rights for "Sanwet," a superabsorbent powder under license from Sanyo, Kyoto, Japan. H-C sells Sanwet into North and South America, primarily targeting the baby diaper market. Parent company Hoechst AG has the license in Europe.

* "Aridall" is a superabsorbent polymer available from Chemdal. Aridall is used primarily in the personal care market; however, "we also see a lot of potential in the smaller niche markets, with more specific requirements," said Mr. Washow.

* Nalco, Naperville, IL, produces a granular superabsorbent that also targets baby diaper applications, although the company is optimistic about the potential of other markets as well. "There are thousands of patents out there on superabsorbents," said market manager Glenn Flasch. "If some big company picks up on one and finds a use, it could change things dramatically."

* "Aquasorb," a sodium carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), is available from Aqualon, Wilmington, DE. Aquasorb is available in two types, a crosslinked CMC, Aquasorb F, which is a fibrous product, and an uncrosslinked granular product, Aquasorb A-250, developed in answer to industry demand. Aqualon is targeting its product to regulated industries, such as the pharmaceutical, food contact, medical devices and feminine care markets. "We are offering a higher quality, purer product to industries where regulations are required," said Harol Gray, market development supervisor. "The CMC based product works well in the targeting more specialty oriented markets."

The company is a joint venture between Hercules and the West Germany company Henkel, but it was recently decided that Hercules would acquire 100% of the assets of Aqualon.

* A superabsorbent fiber that targets medical, filtration, food packaging, adult incontinence and feminine hygiene products, "Lanseal," manufactured by Toyobo, Osaka, Japan, is available in the U.S. through Chori America, Los Angeles, CA. Also available is "DewStopper," which Peter Masuda, of Chori, told Nonwovens Industry is "a nonwoven that is used to absorb excess moisture in the containers that carry coffee beans."

* Super Absorbent Co., Lumberton, NC, manufactures a superabsorbent that it claims can hold up to 1000 times its own weight. The product, "SuperSorb," is targeted at agricultural applications, although the company has not ruled out other possible end use markets. "People are beginning to get familiar with absorbents now. It's becoming more of a household word," said Ed Kurkland, president of Super Absorbent. "We still have a long way to go, but people are becoming more receptive to listening to us and saying `what can we do with it?'"

* "DryTech" is a superabsorbent composed of crosslinked hydrophilic polymers available from Dow Chemical, Midland, MI. DryTech is used primarily in disposable baby diapers, but Mr. Hurd said that Dow is involved in adult incontinence applications as well as in feminine hygiene products, which are still in the developmental stages.

Mr. Hurd is optimistic about the future of superabsorbents but feels the trend now is towards product enhancement. "We had a product life cycle reach maturation in a period of about four years. That is significant growth for a very short period of time," he said. "There is a trend towards constant innovation, trying to improve not only the superabsorbent but also the way it's used in products. We have now reached the optimization stage, learning how to better use what we have."

The Pulp Connection

As superabsorbents, whether they be powders, fibers or foam, continue their growth into nonwovens, another option, superabsorbent blend sheets, has also increased in volume. Hercules' "Pulpex" synthetic fiber, introduced in 1987, continues to gain acceptance, especially in the adult incontinence area. The fiber is combined with a superabsorbent powder into a thermally bonded blend sheet that eliminates the need for a fibrous superabsorbent. Peter Bither told Nonwovens Industry that Pulpex is being used in feminine care and adult diaper applications primarily, but Hercules is also beginning to get into the baby diaper market. "We see it as a large potential market," Mr. Bither said.

DuPont's "PulPlus" superabsorbent blend sheet is also currently being used in feminine hygiene, baby and adult diapers, but "many producers are also looking for niche markets," said DuPont's Richard Elmer. He also said that disposability was definitely on the minds of the manufacturers when considering superabsorbent possibilities.

ELLEN NOONAN Associate Editor
COPYRIGHT 1989 Rodman Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Special Report: Markets for Nonwovens; includes related article on superabsorbent polymers and the demand for acrylic acid
Author:Noonan, Ellen
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Aug 1, 1989
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