“When I talk to people, if I say ‘nonwoven,’ they say ‘non-what?’” said Behnam Pourdeyhimi, a textile materials professor at North Carolina State University and one of the world’s leading experts in the field of nonwovens.

Dr. Pourdeyhimi says “everything we do, at the end of the day, comes back to education and creating the next generation of engineers to work in this industry.”

Unlike traditional textiles that are knitted or woven, nonwovens are sheet or web structures bonded together by entangling fiber or filaments using chemical, mechanical or thermal processes. 

Despite the fabrics’ relative obscurity among the general public, they have numerous and important applications, many of which Pourdeyhimi has played a role in developing. Among other purposes, they serve as water purification and air and blood filtration systems; drug delivery systems; barrier fabrics that provide protection from biological or chemical hazards; waterproof and breathable fabrics; baby, cosmetic and cleaning wipes; railroad and roadway underlay; and car door panels.

“Nonwovens are touching everybody and everything everyday, but people don’t know it,” Pourdeyhimi said.

For his significant contributions to the nonwoven field, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors named Pourdeyhimi one of two recipients of the O. Max Gardner Award this year. Established by the will of Governor O. Max Gardner, the award recognizes faculty who have “made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race.” It is both the highest faculty honor the board bestows and the only award for which all faculty members on UNC campuses are eligible.

The 2015 award carries a $20,000 cash prize and was presented at the April 2015 board meeting.

Pourdeyhimi founded the Nonwovens Institute, a sustainable research and teaching center with global reach and impact.

Situated on the NC State Centennial Campus and supported by 68 member companies, the NWI brings together academic leaders, graduate students and industry professionals to conduct research and develop new nonwoven products. Industry partners cover 98 percent of the Institute’s $10-million annual budget and provide more than $30 million in equipment for use by NC State students and faculty.

“Because the use of nonwoven fabrics is truly ubiquitous in many areas, from medical, hygiene, agriculture, cleaning and filtration, Dr. Pourdeyhimi’s work is benefitting the lives of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people worldwide,” said NC State chemical engineering professor Ruben Carbonell, who has worked with Pourdeyhimi on the development of nonwovens for the last 14 years. “Dr. Pourdeyhimi is an individual that, through his expertise and leadership, has driven the research agenda for the entire field of nonwovens worldwide, both in industry and academia, for many years,” Carbonell said.

The Rise of Nonwovens in North Carolina

The first nonwovens were developed in the 1940s and 50s when Johnson & Johnson created single-use medical and hygiene fabrics — for items like surgical gowns, shoe covers and bed covers — to cut down on cross-contamination in hospitals, Pourdeyhimi said. While the field was confined to a select few companies for decades, it took off 20 to 25 years ago when the knowledge, tools and materials became more widely available.

“Nonwovens are growing at a rate of 6 to 8 percent annually, and we are finding new applications for them everyday — from wound care products to geotextiles to automotive applications to wipes,” Pourdeyhimi said. “It is a really thriving business.”

A native of Iran, Pourdeyhimi first encountered nonwoven fabrics while studying textiles as an undergraduate at Huddersfield Polytechnic in the United Kingdom. He earned his PhD in textiles at The University of Leeds in the United Kingdom in 1982 and then worked as a research scientist at NC State and Cornell University before teaching at the University of Maryland from 1984 to 1995 and Georgia Tech from 1995 to 1999.

He returned to NC State in 1999 and now serves as the William A. Klopman Distinguished Professor of Textile Materials; Associate Dean for Industry, Research and Extension in the College of Textiles; and Executive Director of the Nonwovens Institute.

Jan Genzer, who teaches chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State, credits Pourdeyhimi with positioning the university at the forefront of nonwoven research and development.

“He is singlehandedly responsible for making NC State the place to be when it comes to nonwovens,” Genzer said. “In fact, when someone mentions textile efforts at NC State, they typically mean ‘Behnam-led’ activities in nonwovens.”

With more nonwoven producers than any other state in the nation, North Carolina, too, has built on its textile and paper legacy to become a nonwovens powerhouse.

The global headquarters of Polymer Group Incorporated, or PGI, is in Charlotte, and the company operates manufacturing facilities in Benson, Mooresville and Statesville. The German company Freudenberg Nonwovens, which makes products like automotive carpets and road embankments, is headquartered in Durham. And every county in North Carolina has at least one nonwovens producer, Pourdeyhimi said, estimating that nonwovens bring the state upwards of $4-5 billion per year.

“North Carolina is the heartland for textiles and fibers, and also for paper,” Pourdeyhimi said. “All the infrastructure you need is naturally here.”

Training the Next Generation

Though his work is multi-faceted, Pourdeyhimi views the teaching and advising aspects of his job as the most vital.

“Everything we do, at the end of the day, comes back to education and creating the next generation of engineers to work in this industry,” Pourdeyhimi said. “What’s really gratifying to me is seeing a lot of students as presidents and vice presidents of leading organizations. When I see that, I say, ‘mission accomplished.’” 

In addition to teaching fiber science, nonwovens products and processes and other courses, he has developed more than 130 masters, doctoral and post-doctoral research associates.

John McNabb, the North American general manager of Freudenberg, said four of Pourdeyhimi’s former PhD students work in the company’s Durham headquarters. 

“I often hear the former students reference the influence of Benham,” McNabb said. “He is a tireless and dedicated person, and he returns every phone call and email to his partner companies and students.”

One of the great benefits — and great challenges — of nonwovens work, Pourdeyhimi said, is the fact that unlike pure disciplines such as chemistry and physics, it is interdisciplinary and draws on the fields of chemical engineering, textile engineering, biomedical engineering, chemistry and paper science.

Colleagues say that Dr. Poudeyhimi “is singlehandedly responsible for making NC State the place to be when it comes to nonwovens.”

“This was a discipline that was created by industry out of necessity, and what we’ve tried to do in the past 25 or 30 years is to bring more of a formal discipline to it,” Pourdeyhimi said. In addition to putting out a nonwovens textbook, his efforts have included publishing more than 200 refereed journal articles.

While nonwovens are developing on many fronts, filtration is the fastest growing, especially given the urbanization and industrial growth in many parts of the world.

“I get phone calls from China almost weekly,” Pourdeyhimi said. “They need new filters, new solutions for air and water.” To continue and expand the scope of its work, the Nonwovens Institute plans to double the size of its facilities by next year, he said.

“I could only do this at NC State,” Pourdeyhimi said. “They’ve been really supportive.”

When he is not working, Pourdeyhimi likes to spend time outdoors, where he especially enjoys fishing. His wife was trained as a textile engineer as well, and his two daughters attended NC State before pursuing careers as a medical doctor and a pharmacist.

Pourdeyhimi said he feels extremely grateful to have been chosen for the Gardner Award this year.

“I didn’t expect it,” he said. “The award goes out to the entire team; without this collective, this network of people we have, I would not be able to do what I do.”