Sustainability – a crucial business objective at Norafin

Sustainability – a crucial business objective at Norafin when manufacturing nonwovens

The concept of sustainability, first shaped by Hans Carl von Carlowitz in 1713 in his “Sylvicultura oeconomica” book, also constitutes a very current criterion for the equal treatment of environmental, economical and social issues. The concept of the “Green Economy” is a combination of ecological and economic development as well as profitability that searches for means in which production processes are created to be more efficient while being resource-conserving at the same time. It also increases the use of renewable resources and achieves a unified cycle of materials.

With its 160 employees, Norafin produces high-quality speciality nonwovens using, among other things, the spunlace technology. During this process, the fibre pile is strengthened to the point where a homogeneous fabric (nonwoven) is formed by being subjected to highly pressurised jets of water (p = 100-300 bar). There are no alternatives available to the speciality nonwovens, which are used in protective wear, filter media for the filtration of particles from hot gases, high-performance roll covers for the production of speciality paper and in medical technology. The specific water requirements during the spunlacing process in a relatively small unit varies depending on the type of fibre, the thickness and the grammage of the nonwovens produced. During the spunlacing procedure, the process water accumulates soluble, suspended and emulsified fibre contents or finishing chemicals as well as fragments of fibres and, at this stage, is almost entirely cleaned through a procedural combination within 10-15 minutes. It is then used as process water again. During the preparation of the process water in one of Norafin’s sample units, filter backwash water with a volumetric flow rate of 3-4 m3/h and which was previously treated in a purification plant, is generated. Norafin set itself the task of cleaning the accruing rinse water in the future using a combination of processes that consist of activated sludge technology with nitrification/ denitrification steps and ultra filtration. The water will be cleaned in such a way that it can be added to the process water cycle. As a result of the water treatment, high-quality, pure water is generated. Moreover, the nonwovens are not subjected to any questionable materials, in order to guarantee smooth production procedures at all times and to supply the customer with the highest quality of nonwovens (incl. for medical purposes). For this reason, the range of chemical products to clean the water was selected so that only substances that are also used to purify drinking water are utilised.

An additional step toward the sustainable production of nonwovens at Norafin is the introduction of an energy management system (EnMS) as per DIN EN ISO 50001. With the aid of performance indicators (EnPI), savings potentials are revealed and measures to increase energy efficiency are proposed and implemented. Initial measures, such as the use of energy-saving high-pressure pumps, and the heat recovery from the production process have already been put into effect.

On the market, nonwovens made from sustainable, natural raw materials, such as flax as a replacement for synthetic fibres, are increasingly in demand. Norafin has taken on this task in terms of research, development and production. Due to the naturally given modulus flax fibres, their low, unique weight in comparison to carbon or glass fibres, their vibration dampening features and their UV resistance, flax fibres have plenty advantages as opposed to synthetic fibres. Manufacturing nonwovens from this natural fibre with the spunlace process is not trivial. The natural and synthetically applied avivages, which are washed out, suspended, emulsified and dissolved, must be eliminated relatively quickly and entirely from the circulation water. The according selection and combination of the procedural steps, the qualitative treatment of the circulation water, paired with the rapid removal of the washed out pectins, hemicelluloses and to a lesser degree lignins and waxes, represents the key technology for industrial processing of flax fibres into spunlace reinforced flax nonwovens. Norafin was the first in the world to successfully produce spunlace-reinforced flax nonwovens with commercial standards, and to modify them with different finishes. This laid the foundation for the use of new, biodegradable flax nonwovens. These natural fibre nonwovens are environmentally safe and can be composted without residue after use.

Norafin is undertaking great efforts in research, development and production in order to reclaim the fibres from (refuse) nonwovens and production waste to make new nonwovens out of them. Although solutions for all problems in this area have not yet been found, considerable accomplishments and advancements have been achieved in reusing recycled fibres.
The manufacture of mineral nonwovens based on basalt fibres is currently in the research and development phase. Basalt is a pure and natural product, which does not require chemical modification for the production of basalt fibres. Furthermore, at the end of the product life cycle, it can be recycled without any problems and the materials for the production process can be reduced.

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