Nick Pearce is a Professor in Public Policy and Director of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath.
Scant information is available about the life of Van A Wente. The obituary for his memorial service in 2012 at Concord-St. Andrews United Methodist Church in Bethesda, tells us he retired as Director of NASA's Scientific and Technical Information Division in 1989, but says little else about his career. It doesn’t record a particularly significant achievement: that in the early 1950s he pioneered the industrial technique of ‘melt-blowing’ thermoplastics to form microfibres. This is a process by which molten polymer is extruded through very fine nozzles into a stream of high velocity hot air, creating randomly deposited fibres that form a non-woven fabric. These non-woven fabrics are used in medical face masks.
The global scramble for face masks has led to stand-offs between governments and smash-and-grab raids to procure supplies. It has proved a boon for profiteers, fraudsters and criminal cartels. Such is the worldwide demand for medical face masks that the ‘melt blown’ synthetic fibre used in their manufacture has been nicknamed the ‘golden fleece’. But the story of the medical face mask is not simply one of gangster capitalism or geo-political antagonism. It is a study in the history of political economy.
As with much post-war technological innovation, melt-blowing had its origins in military Cold War research. Van Wente demonstrated the melt-blowing technique while working for the US Naval Research Laboratories to create fibres that could detect radioactive particles in the earth’s atmosphere, thereby enabling the monitoring of nuclear tests.
The story, as told by industry consultant, John G McCulloch, was then taken up at the oil giant Exxon, where researchers used Wente’s innovations to develop melt blown technology and industrial processes in the 1960s and 1970s. The company licensed the technology, and it was soon being used by numerous major US corporates to produce battery separators, wipes, face masks and respirators: ‘…Exxon became the first to demonstrate, patent, publicise and license the use of the Wente concept as a very practical one-step process to produce unique types of non-woven webs, tow, bats, etc… Early successful licensees included Kimberly-Clark, Johnson & Johnson, James River, Web Dynamics and Ergon Nonwovens, followed by many other companies, including 3M.’
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Soviet scientists developed melt-blown technologies for civilian uses. Ceramic drainage pipes fitted with melt-blown polyethylene connecting elements were used in marshland drainage all over the USSR.
As the technology passed from Cold War lab to corporate plants, the machines used to make melt- blown fabrics were produced by leading edge manufacturers. This is where Germany’s famous Mittelstand of family-owned manufacturing companies comes into the story. In the 1950s, Hans and Fritz Reifenhäuser developed their father’s forge in Troisdorf into a blown film plastics machine manufacturing company. Hans Reifenhauser was an archetypal businessman of Germany’s co-ordinated capitalist class, serving on the major industrial associations for mechanical engineering and developing the family company into a world leader of plastics machinery. Today, the Reifenhäuser Group manufactures three quarters of the world’s machines for producing medical and hygienic non-woven fabrics. Located in the same home town of Troisdorf is Innovatec, Germany’s leading producer of melt-blown. The dense networks of innovation that characterise high value manufacturing in Germany have made Troisdorf, a town of 75,000 people, a global hub in the fight against COVID 19.
The story comes full circle in China, the 21st century’s largest manufacturing economy. Out of nowhere, in March this year, the city of Yangzhong in Jiangsu Province became a centre of face-mask manufacturing. Hundreds of companies sprang up overnight to cash in on soaring global demand for face masks. The authorities reacted with alarm. Eight manufacturers of melt-blown fabric had samples tested in early April, only two of which met the standard for high-protection masks. Within weeks the city had closed down over 800 businesses. The Chinese government has moved quickly to clamp down on speculative producers. Instead, it looks to companies like BYD, that have built vast production lines for face mask manufacturing in Shenzen in a matter of weeks, or to the state owned oil company, Sinopec, which has ramped up production of melt-blown fabric, aiming to become the world’s biggest producer. Nothing matches the velocity and sheer scale of Chinese manufacturing.
The comparative political economy of the COVID-19 pandemic is not limited to face masks. It is visible in the sharply different outcomes of the emergency business support measures put in place in the US and Europe, as Anke Hassel and Kathy Thelen have shown; in the national capabilities for the manufacture and use of medical diagnostics in countries like Korea and Germany, compared to the UK; and in the impact of different political systems on the efficacy of public health responses to the crisis. But none of these traverses the global economy – from the defence and oil economy of post-war America, to China’s rise in the 21st century – quite like the story of the golden fleece.
This blog was inspired by a piece in the Financial Times, ‘Demand soars for German ‘golden fleece’, which is linked to in the text.
Are you a decision-maker in government, industry or the third sector responding to the coronavirus crisis? Apply now to our virtual Policy Fellowship Programme for access to University of Bath research and expertise. Learn more.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.