Distributing products such as infant diapers, adult incontinence pads and sanitary pads to a growing, aging population is a global health challenge. It is also an industrial challenge, to which Arkema is contributing its expertise in two key fields.
What can absorb liquid up to 20 times its weight without leaking, even under pressure? Sodium polyacrylate, the absorbent in diapers. This polymer, with its unique properties, has changed the lives of millions of people, and that is, in part, thanks to Arkema. “In three plants in France, the United States and China, we produce glacial acrylic acid, a key component of superabsorbent polymers which are sold to all leading diaper brands. At Carling, our French acrylic acid site, we also produce these superabsorbent polymers ourselves in a neighboring unit for the Sumitomo Seika group,” explains Bernard Darricau, Chairman of Acrylic Monomers Europe at Arkema. This is a premium contribution to a colossal market: in 2018, nearly 170 billion diapers were sold worldwide, in addition to 274 billion sanitary pads, and 48 billion incontinence pads, with strong growth in developed countries owing to the aging population.
The arrival of superabsorbents, which gradually replaced cellulose, made sanitary pads lighter (35g today, compared with 65g in the 1990s). This significant progress was made possible by advances in another field, in which Arkema is a world leader: Adhesive Solutions. “Our hot-melt glues cover all key functions for assembling and securing diapers,” explains Christophe Morel, Global Technical Marketing Manager at Bostik. “The enhanced performance of our products has allowed us to reduce to a minimum the quantity of glue required for a diaper (1-1.5g), while speeding up production. A single assembly line can now produce 1,000 to 1,200 diapers per minute.” Speed is of the essence with hygiene products!
Water is an increasingly precious resource. Arkema’s EthacrylTM additives help save water in the construction industry by reducing the volume needed to make concrete by 30%.
The polycarboxylates produced by firms such as Coatex, a subsidiary of Arkema, are used as concrete admixtures to improve dispersion of cement particles, which makes the concrete flow better. They also deliver considerable water savings. With 1% admixture in the cement, the volume of water needed to prepare a cubic meter of concrete can be reduced by 30% to 40%. “These additives, described as third-generation, are much more effective than their predecessors,” says Christophe Salus, Global Business Manager, Building Materials at Coatex. “They really dominate the market in developed countries, and are achieving strong growth – 14% since 2014 – in Asia (Indonesia, Thailand) and the Middle East.”
In this highly competitive sector, Arkema’s EthacrylTM range is recognized for its specific qualities. Some grades are formulated to lengthen the flow time of the concrete. This is because it sometimes takes three or four hours to pump it to the top of increasingly high tower blocks. Others are formulated to increase their mechanical properties or their resistance during the first few days after curing. “These properties answer the current needs of urban densification and vertical living,” says Christophe Salus. EthacrylTM additives are also used to produce plasterboard (commonly employed in building in the United States). Here too, they reduce the volume of water required – and therefore the quantity of energy consumed to dry the products.