Innovators can look at things and see possibilities that no one else sees. A case in point occurred in the early 1970s with some engineers at a German plant of Akzo Nederlandische Kunstzijdefabrik, a Dutch company based in Arnhem.
The engineers happened to be looking at some waste running off one of the Akzo machines that was producing a nylon-based fiber for industrial use. The waste was falling on the floor and creating an interesting-looking material, sort of like a fairly open nylon wire mesh. They got to talking about it and wondering how the material could be duplicated and what possible uses it would have.
Their first idea was to use the material for reinforcing natural grass in sports fields to give the roots something to hook onto. They quickly realized this application was on the fringe of the area of erosion-control, and things went on from there.
The result has been what is called the geomatrix materials market, the newest and fastest-growing segment of the geotextiles industry.
Geotextiles are products developed by the textile industry for construction. Yearly geotextiles sales probably top $100 million, according to P. J. Skoglund, director of an American producer of geomatrix matrerials, Enka Geomatrix Systems of Enka, N.C. Skoglund said that sales for geomatrix products could hit between $20 million and $30 million a year within five years.
Enka holds American design and process patents on the products, which vary slightly in strength and compression resistance, according to Skoglund. Among these products are:
*Enkaturf, the original product, which is used to increase the strength of grass roots. Skoglund said that Enkaturf is used on 11 of the top 40 golf courses, according to a list compiled by Golf World magazine.
He said that Enkaturf is designed to be installed between an inch and 1 1/4 inches below the surface. As sort of a bonus, Enkaturf acts as a heat sink -- it collects heat from the sun's rays -- allowing far earlier germination of grass seeds than under conventional conditions.
Enkaturf can be used to help grow grass on a roof, which would make structures harder to detect through aerial surveillance, according to Skoglund. He added that the material has other national defense applications, but that he cannot be more specific.
*Enkadrain, which has a filter on one side, is placed against a subsurface wall with the filter side out. Water passes through the filter fabric, loses its suspended particles and drops through the openings in the nylon mesh to a drain rather than working its way through the wall.
*Enkamat, which is similar to Enkaturf, is used in erosion-prone areas to anchor soil and help to secure plants' root systems, protecting shorelines and preventing landslides.
*Enkasonic creates air space between ceilings and floors for sound insulation.
*Enkasonic V.C., which includes a pad, can be placed under air conditioners or other machinery to reduce vibration problems.
*Cow cushion, which also is a pad on top of the basic nylon mesh, protects cattle from the cold of a concrete barn floor and gives them something soft to lie on and to kneel on when rising or lying down, reducing health problems and thus increasing milk yield.
Skoglund said that Enkamat and Enkadrain account for about 60 percent of the company's sales.
When asked what new geomatrix materials are in the works, he said, "We have done quite some development work with a pharmaceutical company for use of our geomatrix product within a hospital-product application.
"We are doing some development work in the area of mist eliminators," devices for recapturing particles from steam, either because they are valuable or because they need to be removed from the atmosphere.
"We have used the matrix as a grid" on building surfaces to trowel stucco into. "We have used it in insulation systems for outdoor storage tanks, where you trowel mastic into it for the final outside coat of the tank."
Enka operates plants in Enka, N.C., Lowland, Tenn., and Clemson, S.C., and has more than 4,000 employes. Its products are sold through distributors to companies that build commercial structures and to federal and area governments.
Since mid-December, Enka Geomatrix, which is based in Enka, N.C., has been a part of the BASF Corp. Fibers Division of Williamsburg, Va., which is owned by BASF Corp. of West Germany.
The company was purchased from Akzo America Inc., which also is based in Enka and which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Dutch-based Akzo company that invented the Enka products.
Six companies put out similar geomatrix-material products, but none of the others is nylon-based, according to Skoglund.
Among the competitors is Mirafi, which once was a unit of Celanese Corp. and now is owned by Dominion Textiles of Canada, Skoglund said.