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Enric Carrera, PhD in Textile Engineering and director of the Terrassa Institute of Textile Research and Industrial Cooperation (INTEXTER UPC)

“We need to opt for reusable masks”

“The COVID19 crisis has reminded us of the importance of investing in R+D”

“The commitment to technical textiles is reinforced by this situation”

The COVID 19 crisis has revealed the country’s shortcomings in the textiles field. However, now the critical phase of guaranteeing health supplies in the short-time has passed, lecturer and researcher Enric Carrera believes that a new phase is opening up for companies in the sector, many of which are readapting their production processes to manufacture hygiene and healthcare textiles. INTEXTER, the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) centre that he directs, has been cooperating since 1964 with the sector in the development of textile products, prototypes and environmental management, among other activities. 

Enric Carrera

How has the activity of INTEXTER changed with COVID 19?

We were affected by not being able to access the laboratories. Previous research projects have been minimised, and basically what we have done is work relating to information, such as writing scientific articles, that does not need us to be present in the centre or to carry out experiments. Many textile companies that did not manufacture healthcare textiles have seen the opportunity to redirect their production, and many are getting in touch with us to ask for information on regulations that must be met for this type of products, particularly testing regulations. Now, over half of our activity is related to COVID 19 and 90% of consultations.

What do companies need to consider in the manufacture of health and hygiene products?

They consult us about the fibres that can be used, the types of fabrics, the right threads, the finishing treatments, the applicable regulations and specific issues to obtain the right results in their manufacturing process and to meet standards. 

Before the pandemic, did INTEXTER work on healthcare textile projects?

Yes. In fact, for some time we have been developing a technique called electrospinning to manufacture nanofibres and obtain dressings for healthcare use. This led to the creation of a spin-off between the UPC and the Hospital Sant Joan de Déu. The dressings have drugs incorporated that prevent the expansion of cancer in wounds produced in surgical operations. We have also worked on the use of microcapsules on textiles that can release drugs or cosmetic products onto the skin.

Are companies in the INTEXTER environment adapting to the manufacture of healthcare textiles?

They are adapting and some successfully, but it is not easy. The manufacture of a product is the result of previous research, and this does not happen overnight. We have detected a certain knowledge gap on the dynamics of the development processes. 

How is INTEXTER helping in this process?

We are guiding companies in terms of materials, thread thickness and densities, among other aspects. In the case of masks, this is a product that needs a filtration capacity and properties that cannot be improvised. 

Where are requests for help coming from?

Mainly from Catalan companies, but also from all around Spain, and not only from companies. We have also been consulted by hospitals looking for suppliers. 

Have masks come to stay?

It seems they have, but textile engineers are not responsible for decisions on their use. We look for the most appropriate form of production and the most suitable design, in accordance with the health guidelines. However, it is clear that if we need to wear masks in the coming months, the only solution it is that of the reusable hygienic mask, which could be made from knitted or woven fabric. Surgical masks, which are worn by health staff, are made from what is known as non-fabric: sheets produced by fibre entanglement. 

INTEXTER is collaborating with the Government of Catalonia’s Department of Health. What are you helping them with?

At the start of the pandemic, when the lack of masks on the market led many people to make their own devices at home, we provided advice on certain recommendations, such as to avoid using cotton in their manufacture. We helped to identify the characteristics of fabrics and above all to clarify what should not be done.

 What should be considered when masks are bought on the market?

Check the fabric they are made from is certified by a laboratory recognised by the Spanish National Accreditation Agency (ENAC), to carry out trials of compliance with the UNE 0065-2020 standard. The fabric should have two basic characteristics: the bacterial filtration efficiency should be above 90%, and the breathability should be less than 60 (Pa/cm2). The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism has published a listof the fabrics that meet these requirements and the name of the companies that make them.

So the key is the materials?

The aim is to produce a fabric that protects against bacteria and enables the wearer to breathe. The problem is that in Spain there is only one laboratory that can approve textiles, AITEX. This shows a serious problem that we have as a country: structural weakness. This is a disaster, because it has created a bottleneck that prevents companies who want to manufacture these products from being able to do so due to a lack of sufficient capacity to carry out certification tests. 

INTEXTER has published a website with updated information on COVID and textiles. How is it working?

We have done this to respond to the many questions we receive, which are often about the same subject. The website brings together everything published in the official state gazette (BOE), UNE regulations, regulations of other countries such as the USA, France and Great Britain. In addition, it includes scientific publications on the permanence of COVID in textiles and the disinfection of clothes, for example. We update it every week and it is working very well.

Do you carry out training on COVID and textiles?

Yes, on 27 May we gave a webinar as part of a cooperation project in which we participate along with the Universitat Politécnica de Catalunya (UPC), Terrassa City Council, the Mutua de Terrassa, the Terrassa Health Consortium, the Terrassa School of Nursing (EUIT) and the Catalan cluster of textiles for technical use (AEI Tèxtils). In the seminar, we provided training to 80 companies on materials, regulations, tests and reuse. We plan to carry out several more.

Disposable masks create a waste problem in the short-term. Should the manufacture and use of reusable masks be promoted?

If we consider that there are 47 million inhabitants in Spain and each mask is used around twice a week before it is thrown away, we need 94 million masks every seven days. This represents 270 tonnes of waste a week; an impressive amount. We need to opt for reusable masks that can be washed whose useful life is 30, 40 or 50 washes. It is the only way from the perspective of sustainability, as well as savings in raw materials and household budgets. The challenge is to achieve a type of fabric and chemical finishing that lengthens the mask’s life as much as possible.

Could INTEXTER collaborate with companies to develop reusable masks?

Yes. We know the general criteria, but we need to carry out tests. That is why we have pilot plants in which we can test the fabrics and the chemical treatment. One of our advantages is that, in addition to the laboratory functions, we have the capacity to produce prototypes to scale that enable these types of preliminary studies to be carried out. 

What other projects related to COVID 19 are you working on now?

We are researching an air purification system developed by a Catalan company to disinfect fabrics so that the virus is eliminated from them. This is an important topic because of concerns in the clothing industry about clients being able to try on clothes safely. 

Has the textile sector been revitalised due to the COVID 19 crisis? 

Yes, this is happening. In Europe, over half the production is of technical fabrics for health,  dwellings, and the automobile industry, among other sectors. This requires more technology and skilled workers, including engineers, but results in much higher profits than clothing. The COVID crisis is further accelerating this process. The commitment to technical textiles is reinforced by this situation. 

Could this be an opportunity for companies to be more competitive through innovation?

There is no doubt that we are facing an opportunity for the Spanish textile sector. The COVID19 crisis has reminded us of the importance of investing in research and development. We need technology centres and universities to support companies in the textile sector too.

Should we take measures to become independent from other countries for the design and production of healthcare textiles?

Yes, particularly in Spain and Catalonia. Over the last 15 or 20 years, support for the industrial production sector has been abandoned. Specifically the textile field, which had a bad image, was not considered an industry of the future. However, we have seen that local production is vital to guarantee supply. We cannot depend on distant supplies from other countries.

Do you think this could increase interest in university textile studies?

We are already seeing this. Now the importance of the sector has been revealed. Four or five years ago there was an upturn in enrolments for the Terrassa School of Industrial, Aerospace and Audiovisual Engineering (ESEIAAT), which was also due to the support of the textile industrial sector through the grant programme.