History of super absorbent polymer chemistry

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Courtesy of M2 Polymer Technologies, Inc.

Until the 1980’s, water absorbing materials were cellulosic or fiber-based products. Choices were tissue paper, cotton, sponge, and fluff pulp. The water retention capacity of these types of materials is only 20 times their weight – at most.

In the early 1960s, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was conducting work on materials to improve water conservation in soils. They developed a resin based on the grafting of acrylonitrile polymer onto the backbone of starch molecules (i.e. starch-grafting). The hydrolyzed product of the hydrolysis of this starch-acrylonitrile co-polymer gave water absorption greater than 400 times its weight. Also, the gel did not release liquid water the way that fiber-based absorbents do. The polymer came to be known as “Super Slurper”. The USDA gave the technical know how several USA companies for further development of the basic technology. A wide range of grating combinations were attempted including work with acrylic acid, acrylamide and polyvinyl alcohol (PVA).

Since Japanese companies were excluded by the USDA, they started independent research using starch, carboxy methyl cellulose (CMC), acrylic acid, polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) and isobutylene maleic anhydride (IMA).

Early global participants in the development of super absorbent chemistry included Dow Chemical, Hercules, General Mills Chemical, DuPont, National Starch & Chemical, Enka (Akzo), Sanyo Chemical, Sumitomo Chemical, Kao, Nihon Starch and Japan Exlan.

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