Ramkumar's Research: Building a Better World Through Technical Textiles
Written by Toni Salama
The field of technical textiles is still in its infancy. Yet already its influence is far-reaching, quietly covering uses in a dozen sectors.
You probably diaper your baby and wipe it dry with technical textiles. You might tote your groceries home in an eco-friendly bag made of the stuff. Buy a new car, and you likely are enveloped by some of these versatile materials, even as you motor over a roadway with technical textiles embedded in the street's substructure.
At the forefront of this technology stands Texas Tech University Professor Seshadri Ramkumar, of the Department of Environmental Toxicology's Institute for Environmental & Human Health (TIEHH). He and his team of researchers in the Nonwovens & Advanced Materials Laboratory are testing, developing and producing new substances that may make the world a cleaner, safer more comfortable place to live. TTU Ph.D. candidate Sudheer Jinka is conducting atmospheric plasma research, and TTU Ph.D. candidate Vinitkumar Singh is conducting research on cotton sorption for oil spills.
Making It to Market
The Advanced Materials research team's biggest success story, so far, is a chemical decontamination wipe called Fibertect®. It's one of Texas Tech's first products to be commercialized. With its layer of activated carbon sandwiched between top and bottom layers of nonwoven material, Fibertect® has tested highly effective in cleaning up certain chemical warfare agents, toxic industrial chemicals and pesticides. Fibertect® is manufactured by Waco, Texas-based Hobbs Bonded Fibers; and Chantilly, Va.-based First Line Technology is marketing the final product to defense and homeland security sectors.
Another recent breakthrough: The Advanced Materials research team found that when spunbound polypropylene nonwoven fabrics are pre-treated with atmospheric plasma, the number and size of the fabric pores are increased without compromising the fabric's barrier properties, as published in the Journal of Industrial Textiles. The practical application is that this fabric technology could find its way into the development of medical clothing--surgical masks, gowns and drapes, for instance--that's more comfortable, more breathable and, at the same time, more resistant to blood and microbial penetration. Ramkumar adds that this technology would deliver those qualities at a cheaper price than items currently on the market, and in an eco-friendly way.
The Wide World of Nonwovens
Technical textiles are considered fabric, but most are not of the spinning-and-weaving variety. Ramkumar draws the distinction between traditional woven cloth and technical textiles this way:
"Conventional fabrics are designed mainly for the apparel
and home-furnishing industries. They're valued for their
aesthetics, feel and comfort," Ramkumar says.
"Technical textiles are created for performance and protection."
The production process of nonwovens is much like that of making paper or felt, Ramkumar says. "In nonwovens technology, we skip many processes, which the conventional textile industry uses. This way we develop products such as wipes at high speed and reduced cost."
However, Ramkumar adds, the resulting web-like material is weak and must be bonded to provide strength. Depending on the type of web formation and subsequent bonding, Ramkumar says, nonwovens can be classified and used in the following ways:
- Wet-Laid: tea filter bags are a good example.
- Spunbound: most often used in packaging.
- Needlepunch: found in automotive textiles.
- Spunlace: for hygiene applications.
- Meltblowing: used in filtration.
- Airlaid: pulp fabrics.
The automotive industry, especially, has taken interest in fiber-based nonwovens because the use of these materials can reduce the overall weight of a vehicle. The United Kingdom-based Textiles Intelligence predicts that, by 2020, each automobile will contain about 35 kilograms, or 77 pounds, of textiles. The USA based Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) estimates some 40 different nonwoven substrates may be used in a single automobile, ranging from headliners to carpets, air filters to acoustic insulation.
Considering that market, Ramkumar says the Advanced Materials research group is exploring natural-fiber based nonwovens for sound absorption in cars.
Technical textiles can be engineered to protect more than tender ear drums. Fabrics with antiballistic properties can be made into soft body armor; others may be worn to protect against chemical or biological hazards. In this area, as well, Texas Tech's researchers are on the job.
"We have patented a multilayer soft armor, predominantly used for law-enforcement personnel. It has a next-to-skin nonwoven layer, followed by multiple layers of antiballistic material," says Ramkumar. "These antiballistic materials may be made from Kevlar, Spectra and Twaron, etc."
The Cotton Connection
The term "technical textiles" may create the impression that all such substances are synthetic. But the Advanced Materials group is conducting studies on low-grade cotton for its potential in cleaning up oil spills--research that is considered breakthrough work by the American Chemical Society. In recent months, this work has attracted coverage in international publications such as The Economist and The Guardian.
Raw cotton's high crude-oil sorption capacity and positive environmental footprint make it an ecologically friendly sorbent for oil-spill cleanups, Ramkumar says.
"About 10 percent of the cotton grown in West Texas is low-micronaire/low-grade cotton. It doesn't take up a dye well, so it gets discounted. Our research shows low-micronaire cotton is less mature, it collapses, and more fibers can be packed into a given area," Ramkumar explains.
"More importantly, the strength here is that the low-micronaire cotton absorbs the most crude oil," Ramkumar adds. "The oil not only sticks to the surface, the oil gets absorbed into the fiber."
What the Future Holds
The Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century took spinning and weaving out of the home and into the factory, bringing sweeping social and economic advances. In the 20th Century, items made of plastic proliferated to such a degree that modern existence would be inconceivable without them. In the same way, continued discoveries and developments in technical textiles carry the potential to once again revolutionize everyday life.
At Texas Tech, the future is clearly a matter of continued research, hand-in-hand with education. The Advanced Materials group is focusing its attention on developing flexible materials for environmental remediation, human life protection and health enhancements.
"I feel research is constant education and always looking forward. With the help of good students, professors learn every day. This has been my story so far," Ramkumar says. "As long as professors are enthusiastic about their research and are forward-looking, new inventions can come and one day they will be put to good use."
Seshadri Ramkumar acquired his bachelor's in technology Chennai, India, before heading to the United Kingdom to earn his Ph.D. from Leeds University in 1998. He came to Lubbock in January 1999 to take up a position as Research Associate in Texas Tech's Textile Research Center and became a graduate faculty at Tech that same year. He joined the Department of Environmental Toxicology as a tenure-track faculty in 2005. He became a full professor in September 2013.
TTU Environmental Toxicology Professor
Among his recent achievements:
- Certificate of Recognition on Commercialization of Fibertect®, Texas Tech University, The Institute of Environmental & Human Health, 2012
- Honorary Fellow, Textile Association-India, 2011 (Textile Association-India is the world's largest association for textile professionals with over 22,000 members.)
- Headliner Award, Association for Women in Communications, Lubbock Chapter, 2011
- Innovation in Technology Award, Lubbock Chamber of Commerce, 2011
- Top Innovation Recognition for Fibertect®, Cotton Inc., USA, 2010
- Chancellor's Council Distinguished Research Award, Texas Tech University, 2010
- Scientist of the Year, Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Foundation, Lubbock Chapter, 2009
- Technical Textiles Accomplishment Award, Coimbatore, India, 2008