The late Dhirubahi Ambani, the founder of Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), was labelled as the 'polyster prince' much before the group's mainstay became petroleum at the end of the 1990s. Now, the company's invention of a polyester short cut fibre is covering the sheds that need asbestos and are dependent on imports.
RIL's research and development (R&D) wing has developed a polyester fibre coated with a special chemical, which would substitute asbestos used by the construction industry in roofing applications, siliconised fibres for soil stabilisation and other applications. One per cent of polyester fibre can be used to replace four per cent of asbestos fibre.
While asbestos needs to be milled before use, the new-generation fibre can be straight away added in the mix tank. “In the near future, asbestos availability will become a concern. Of the five major producers, two are already closed,” said an RIL official who did not want to be named.
“RIL's new-generation fibre has successfully replaced 10-15 per cent of asbestos, we are continuously working on research and developments along with leading asbestos cement sheet roofing companies to achieve a higher percentage replacement of asbestos,” the official added.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found in underground rock formations. For commercial purposes, it is recovered by mining and rock crushing. Of the two varieties of asbestos--Chrysotile and Amphibole--only Chrysotile is used for commercial purposes.
Manufacturers of asbestos cement (AC) sheet and pipe manufacturers in India import all their requirements of chrysotile fibres from Canada, Brazil, Russia, Zimbabwe and Kazakhstan for production of AC sheets and pipes.
AC sheets have been in use in India for over 70 years. Their weather-proof and corrosion-resistant qualities help them score over metal sheets.
AC sheets are also cost-effective and strong and durable. Other than India, Russia, China, Thailand and Brazil are among the largest users of AC sheets.
Mining of asbestos is banned in India, but its usage is not. Thus, the industry depends on 100 per cent imports. However, with most shipping lines not accepting asbestos, container companies have to maintain around four months' inventory of asbestos to maintain production.
“Chrysotile asbestos fibre, (composed mainly of magnesium and silica), is a great reinforcing agent. While its tensile strength is greater than steel, it has other rare and highly valued fire-retardant, chemical-resistant and heat-insulating qualities,” says the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers' Association, New Delhi, on its website.
Hyderabad Industries Ltd (HIL), a flagship company of the CK Birla Group of companies to which RIL is currently supplying the fibre, says use of the fibre has led to a five per cent increase in productivity and reduced cost by seven per cent.
“We have been using RIL's fibre for some time now, and are happy with the results. Last year, we replaced 10 per cent of asbestos and monitored the product's performance. This year, we have decided to replace 20 per cent asbestos,” said S Jagadesh, general manager, R&D, HIL.
Jagadesh added this fibre would help reduce its dependence on asbestos. HIL manufactured around 800,000 tonnes of roofing sheets per annum.
Other companies using RIL's product include Sahyadri Industries and Ramco Industries, both producers of fibre cement sheets. Industrial trails, said RIL, are already on at Everest Industries, UAL Inudstries and Visaka Industries, another set of fibre cement sheets manufacturing companies.
So far, RIL has sold about 1,000 tonnes of polyester fibre. The company said sampling has also begun in Thailand, adding it was continuously working on further R&D along with leading asbestos cement sheet manufacturing companies to achieve 100 per cent replacement of asbestos.