By: Albin F Turbak

The pursuit of a better fiber and a better fabric is yielding products used in medicine, aeronautics, astronautics, seawater desalination, and construction of buildings and roads.

Today a typical man's shirt contains about 900 miles of filament-enough to stretch from Atlanta to New York city. Filament fiber extruders spin this fine yarn at a speed of 250 miles an hour. This ability to spin cobweb-size filaments at jet airplane speeds with sufficient precision to maintain constant elongation, molecular orientation, fiber diameter, and tenacity (fiber strength per unit weight) dramatically illustrates the sophistication of the new textile technology.

The new kinds of textiles possess characteristics that make them useful in numerous formerly unexpected applications. Although textiles are still the major component of the clothes we wear and of many furnishings in our homes and offices, they are also used widely in medicine, aeronautics, astronautics, pollution abatement, and numerous other fields. Some new textiles possess qualities that make them stain-resistant, flameproof, and even stiff. Some are "'nonwoven" matrices of overlapping fibers. Innovation in textile technology continues and more unusual products will almost surely emerge.

Replacing body parts

Certain fibers and textile materials are especially suitable for use in building synthetic body parts and medical scientists are steadily expanding the types of body parts whose function can be mimicked.

The artificial kidney is made from 7,000 hollow fibers, each of which is about the size of a human hair. Patients whose kidneys no longer function normally must have their blood freed by dialysis of metabolic wastes and excess water about every three days. This is accomplished by pumping the blood through a textile, hollow-fiber module while clean-sing solution rinses the blood free of urea, creatinine, and other impurities. Hospitals also use such blood dialysis on patients who have taken poisons or overdoses of medicines or drugs. This technique is more likely than time-consuming normal body elimination to save their lives.

Without the especially prepared cuprammonium rayon hollow textile fibers, there would be no artificial kidneys and thousands of people would die each year. These rayon fibers have exactly the right pore size to allow poisons and waste products to pass through while retaining the blood for return to the body after cleaning.

Artificial arteries made of knitted polyester textile tubes are used for many patients whose natural arteries leading to their legs are blocked. Patients with diabetes have a tendency to suffer from cholesterol blockage of arteries leading to their feet. If not corrected, poor circulation can lead to gangrene and loss of limbs. Artificial arteries that look like pencil diameter corrugated vacuum cleaner hoses are surgically inserted to bypass the blockages, thus restoring circulation and saving limb functions. These implants require crucial textile technology to prevent clotting and rejection. It is estimated that more than 150,000 people in the United States have now had these artificial arteries for over five years.

The. Jarvik-7 artificial heart is composed of over 50 percent textile construction including a polyurethane inner structure and Velcro junction fittings for greater comfort.

Sutures made from textile fibers of all types (silk, collagen, polyester, or nylon) for closing incisions after surgery are among the most expensive textiles, selling for more than $2,000 a pound. Bone replacements of carbon fiber composites are nonantigenic (not rejected by the body). By proper control of the composite porosity, it is becoming possible to have injured bone tissue accept and grow into the inserted replacement units.

Disposable, sterile, nonwoven coverings for operating tables, surgeon's masks, and disposable gowns are other examples of textile technology at work in medicine. To keep the operating covers from ripping when they are wet with blood, special nonstretched nylon fibers are co-blended into the nonwoven.

In the fields of aerospace engineering, construction, water purification and pollution abatement, a similar proliferation of new applications is emerging from research laboratories.