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Materials

The future is antiviral for Japan's material makers

Manufacturers scramble to capture surging demand brought on by pandemic

A Tokyo Metro worker sprays chemicals to kill viruses and bacteria inside a passenger car. Japan's companies are developing new materials to fight viruses.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- As the world becomes evermore vigilant about keeping germs and viruses at bay after a pandemic year, Japanese material makers have developed a series of antiviral products with the goal of capturing the double-digit rise in demand.

From masks and upholstery to plastic sheeting and paint additives, antiviral material could take off across the industry as a sustainable product category.

Textile maker Toyobo will release in April a nonwoven fabric, Airria, that contains an antiviral surface agent. The product is expected to be used on car seats, air conditioning filters and in personal protective equipment.

Toyobo has synthesized a compound between an antiviral agent and an adhesive that boosts the staying power of the virus fighter to the material. The fabric is able to maintain its performance for over a year, even when used outdoors, according to Toyobo.

The company is testing Airria's effectiveness against the coronavirus, with the goal of raking in about 1 billion yen ($9.5 million) in fiscal 2022.

Chemical producer Tokuyama has developed an additive for construction paint that protects against viruses, including the novel coronavirus. Called Calsetter, the product is due to be released as early as this year.

Construction material and paper coated with Calsetter paint will eliminate 99% of a virus that comes into contact with, within 10 minutes, Tokuyama says. The company seeks to generate annual sales in the hundreds of millions of yen.

Tokuyama's paint additive Calsetter inactivates 99% of viruses within 10 minutes. (Photo courtesy of Tokuyama)

The acrylic plastic that shields cashiers and other service workers are getting the antiviral treatment as well.

Sumitomo Chemical will start selling acrylic sheets with added antimicrobial agents by the end of next month. The manufacturer will release additional products with antiviral properties this year.

Mitsubishi Chemical plans to start shipping by the end of the year acrylic sheets that either have antiviral substances added to the material, or are covered with antiviral film. Because the company processes the acrylic materials at lower temperatures than normal, it is able to use a wide range of pharmaceutical substances.

The demand for acrylic sheets soared last spring due to the need to germ-proof restaurants and other establishments against the airborne virus. The demand eased temporarily in the fall, then spiked again with the latest wave of COVID-19 cases.   

At Sumitomo Chemical, the production volume of acrylic sheets has grown 30% compared with the previous year. But because the acrylic sheets have been commoditized, the product is exposed to price wars. Both Sumitomo Chemical and Mitsubishi Chemical are adding antiviral properties to boost the added value.

Mitsubishi Chemical plans to ship acrylic sheets with antiviral agents by the end of the year. (Photo courtesy of Mitsubishi Chemical) 

Asahi Kasei, another material supplier, is doubling its production capacity for deep ultraviolet LED light modules. The LED modules, which can be installed in air conditioning systems and touch panels, emit light that can inactivate the coronavirus.

Asahi Kasei acquired the tech when it purchased U.S. manufacturer Crystal IS in 2012. The pandemic caused demand for germicidal UV light products to jump, and the group is adding personnel to a plant in Japan's Shizuoka Prefecture.

Japan's market for antiviral material climbed 50% last year to 337.5 billion yen, data from Fuji Keizai shows. The scale is projected to expand by roughly 20% this year.

The Society of International sustaining growth for Antimicrobial Articles, the Tokyo-based industry group known as SIAA, received an influx of membership applications from companies seeking to attain antimicrobial certification for their products. The number of members doubled from the previous year to approximately 700 participants.

Asahi Kasei saw demand surge for virus-zapping LED lights that use ultraviolet wavelengths. (Photo courtesy of Asahi Kasei)

SIAA's capacity to screen products have been stretched due to the arrival of new members.

"There are cases where new certifications take half a year," said an SIAA representative.

"At the very least, I see demand [for antiviral material] continuing to rise until the coronavirus vaccine is distributed," said a source from a major chemical company.

A product is SIAA approved if the treated surface is able to attain a viral load that is 1% or less of the viral load of a non-treated surface after 24 hours. But that performance does not necessarily mean that the product has been proven effective against the novel coronavirus. The Japanese Industrial Standards assumes tougher criteria for antiviral material, the body setting the threshold at 0.1% compared with an untreated surface.

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