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Off-road rally

Spending cutbacks in road construction led to big changes in the geotextile market but, with increased awareness of the advantages of geosynthetics, the manufacturers have fought back successfully.

Ironically, the geosynthetics market reached maturity just as investment in civil engineering projects in the UK started to dry up. Engineers and contractors alike are now aware of the benefits of geosynthetics in a wide range of applications, but spending cutbacks - especially in road construction - have restricted their opportunities to use them.

At the same time, the strength of the pound has contributed to an influx of cheaper imported materials, particularly from the Far East and Eastern Europe.

Mike Hyder, managing director of geotextile supplier Hytex, believes this has led to a 'more aggressive' market.

'Geotextiles had their boom day when there were new motorway schemes, but now these are few and far between,' he says. 'That scarcity of work has made it a very aggressive market.'

Graham Thomson, applications engineer with manufacturer Huesker Synthetics, says: 'There is certainly a lot more competition, with a lot of new companies coming into the market and pushing prices right down.' He says that the solution is to get involved in projects early on, and to try to have an influence on the design.

Not surprisingly, the increased competition has led to consolidation, mergers and acquisitions in the UK geosynthetics industry. But while some of the suppliers' names may have changed, 'the manufacturers are generally good at keeping the products on the market and not changing their specifications', according to Maunsell associate Steve Corbet.

Corbet says 'people are becoming more confident' about using geosynthetics across a variety of applications, but he says there is still a need for impartial advice.

Corbet, a council member of the International Geotextile Society (IGS), will later this month launch a telephone hotline based at Maunsell offering free advice on geosynthetics. He hopes it will attract interest from contractors, as well as other

consultants.

The increase in privately financed and DBFO civil engineering projects has led to contractors becoming more involved in designing and specifying all forms of geosynthetics. 'That is a market we're trying to reach with the hotline,' says Corbet.

Huesker's Graham Thomson says he has seen a change in attitude among contractors with the arrival of PFI contracts. 'In DBFO situations you have a contractor who's got a much more value-orientated outlook on life,' he says.

'You see people setting themselves up within the consultants' offices who are specialists in buildability. They are often experienced site people who have used geosynthetics before, and in that situation we can build on old relationships.'

Thomson says there is still a need for education in the industry about the use of geosynthetics. The IGS is currently undertaking a series of presentations to universities, having discovered that only a handful of them cover geosynthetics as part of their undergraduate civil engineering courses.

The downturn in road construction has not destroyed the geosynthetics market. A vast quantity of these materials are used for lining and providing drainage layers for landfill sites, and new materials are continually being developed for this application.

Last year saw the first use in the UK of Akzo Nobel Synthetics' new multifunctional geogrid, TRC-grid, for a landfill cell at a chemical plant in Grimsby. The grid is made of aromatic polyamide, which is still relatively new to geosynthetics.

The spending boom in the rail sector has also brought work to the geosynthetics suppliers. Geotextiles can be used as a separation layer between ballast and formation to stop the rail track settling.

GEOfabrics has recently had its GHP3RT non-woven needle-punched geotextile approved by Railtrack as both a separation or filter layer and as drainage material for pipe or trench wrap. It has already been used to encapsulate the stone drainage blanket at the base of a reconstructed railway embankment on the Bicester to Oxford line.

Another expanding market is highway maintenance, which is currently the subject of local-authority spending after a few lean years. Huesker is finding increased demand for its asphalt reinforcing geogrid, Hatelit, which can be laid within a bitumen layer to add strength during

resurfacing or when a new wearing course is laid.

Also available in the UK are geotextiles made using natural fibres, such as jute and coir. Hytex does sell a range of woven polypropylene geotextiles for the road and rail sectors, but was originally set up 10 years ago to market natural-fibre slope stabilisation products.

'These are now semi-engineered fabrics, and engineers are looking at them in a new light,' says Mike Hyder.

The fabrics degrade over time, leaving the soil naturally stabilised by vegetation. 'It's got its limitations,' admits Hyder. 'If you're looking at a 40m high embankment then no way would you use a natural material. But as a surface erosion material for embankments up to 2.5m high, it's ideal.'

Rod Smith, managing director of Elwood Consultants, says these materials - and jute in particular - could be used more widely than they are in the UK. 'The question is that engineers want a lot of technical data, and they are used to getting that from the synthetics manufacturers. The same information is not available from the jute suppliers.'

Smith is involved in a UN initiative to encourage jute suppliers to provide that information. In the mean time, he foresees an increase in the use of composite products combining jute and synthetic materials.

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