(Reuters) - As European nations clamour for masks to protect their healthcare workers against the coronavirus, a niche within the synthetic fibre industry emerges as the provider of a vital component.
**WHAT FABRIC IS USED IN FACE MASKS?
An ultra fine synthetic fabric, meltblown polypropylene is the gold standard for filtering virus-filled droplets out of breathing air in face masks.Both the heavy duty N95 respirator masks, also known as FFP2, and simpler surgical masks require meltblown fabric. Protective layers of coarser fabric are added on both sides.
**HOW IS IT MADE?
To make the thin fleece, solid polypropylene granulates are melted and shot out of ultra-thin nozzles into a stream of hot air. This so-called meltblowing process yields a tangled mesh of fibres with 1-3 micrometres, or one thousandth of a millimetre, in diameter. An electrostatic charge is added to attract aerosols.
**WHY IS IT IN SHORT SUPPLY?
Meltblown production has emerged as an acute bottleneck because Europe has so far relied heavily on Asian suppliers. Assembling and installing the highly specialised meltblowing machines normally takes over a year. Lead times are now being cut to a few months.
Textiles lobby group Euratex has set up with the EU an online exchange where companies post offers and requests for services and materials. That shows 32 companies are in need of various mask materials, nine of which are specifically asking for air filter material.
**REGIONAL IMBALANCES IN PRODUCTION
EDANA, an association of mainly European non-woven fabric makers, says meltblown capacity in Europe is limited, while output in Asia is much larger.
In China, the No. 1 producer, companies controlled by the central government are expected to reach production of over 70 tonnes of meltblown per day, or more than 25,000 tonnes per year, including new production lines of Sinopec and China National Petroleum Corp, state media Xinhua reported on March 30. That is up from a current daily supply of 42.5 tonnes.
According to EDANA , production of overall non-wovens in Europe was 2.8 million tonnes in 2019 but meltblown was only a fraction of that.
(Reporting by Ludwig Burger and Roxanne Liu in Beijing;Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)