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New production technology makes cotton crucial component to Defense Department

Cotton, it’s not just for blue jeans anymore. In fact, a non-woven cotton fabric promises to fill a critical strategic goal for the U.S. Department of Defense Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense Program.

A newly developed three-layered product includes a middle layer of sorbent carbon, an anti-microbial layer and a layer of cotton. Used as a wipe, the product will clean contaminants, biological or chemical, from equipment parts and human skin. It may also be used in protective clothing. A non-particulate characteristic keeps the wipe devoid of dirty loose particulates.

“These wipes provide a solution to defense requirements for chemical and biological warfare countermeasures,” says Seshadri Ramkumar, with The Institute of Environment and Human Health at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Ramkumar, who goes by Ram, initiated research on needlepunch, nonwoven technology in 1999. The process now produces a cost effective sorbent wipe. “Needlepunching interlocks fibers, creating a coherent structure (necessary) in developing multiple layered wipes,” he says.

“The interlocking mechanism makes the wipe flexible and allows it to clean crevices and intricate parts more effectively. The wipe’s antimicrobial fibers and sorbent carbon provides both chemical and biological countermeasure capabilities.”

The wipe is flexible and fits the contour and shape of the human body and other objects (such as airplane wings) to be decontaminated.

“Light in weight and not rigid, it is unlike decon pads currently available,” he says. “(This wipe) enhances performance and efficiency of the (soldier).”

Ramkumar says cotton is the ideal fiber for the decontamination fabric. The same characteristics that make cotton the best choice for comfortable apparel and in-home uses make it the best choice for this critical application.

“Cotton is a highly comfortable, next-to-skin friendly fiber,” he says. “This makes it a best fit for protection and good breathability.”

Ramkumar says the product has immediate potential. “The military has an urgent need for decontamination wipes that meet (certain) specifications.”

Those specs include a “non-caustic, non-corrosive decontaminant for personnel and equipment to be achieved during fiscal years 2006 to 2011. The military also has specified that the decontaminant be non-aqueous. This is precisely the area of our work at TIEHH,” he says.

Ramification of the work goes beyond the military and homeland security. Ramkumar says industrial and domestic uses also make the product and cotton a valuable commodity. He says uses could include toxic clean-up for industrial sites and for emergency medical technicians at domestic contamination sites.

“Every EMT ought to have them,” he says. “This is a completely new way of thinking about the value of cotton,” he says. “This creates a new domestic industry for cotton manufacturing. As a defense item, the product must be manufactured in the United States.”

Consequently, manufacturing facilities will be necessary.

Also, as a disposable item, demand will be significant. “This is a value-added cotton product,” Ramkumar says. “Cotton will no longer be a commodity fiber but a high-value product, essential to homeland security.”

He says the inconsistent and rapidly disappearing domestic cotton apparel market also will play a less pivotal role in cotton production. “This is not a denim market,” he says. “That market is gone, never to return. This is value-added cotton that offers opportunities to producers well into the future.”

He says the nonwoven, needlepunch technology does not require higher quality fiber. “We can use shorter staple cotton,” he says. “But, because of the need, prices should be higher.”

He’s not done with the product yet. “I will continue my research, looking at a broader range of pesticides and other chemicals.”

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