Local fiber maker PBI growing amid hard economic times

A firefighter's gear can save him from death or severe burns. Capt. Chris Klepper saw it happen in a Rock Hill Fire Department training exercise a few years ago.

New recruits were spraying water on a training fire. The hose nozzle created a vacuum, pulling the fire onto one of the recruits.

"You could see on the shoulder of the jacket, burn marks where the fire came down on top of him," Klepper said.

The jacket saved the man from being burned, Klepper said.

The gear contains a flame-resistant polybenzimidazole, or PBI, fiber that is manufactured only in Rock Hill at PBI Performance Products, once a part of the former Hoeschst Celanese Celriver Plant. PBI is a high-performance plastic that can withstand extreme heat, corrosive metals and high pressure.

These properties have increased the global demand for the fiber, prompting the Rock Hill plant to recently announce plans for a $15 million expansion that will add 19 jobs over five years. The expansion will allow the company to double its fiber production and add facilities to develop new technology using its PBI polymer.

"We anticipate growth for the product over the next five years. We are staying one step ahead by expanding today," said Grant Reeves, president of PBI Performance Products.

More than 70 percent of the largest fire departments in the United States, including Rock Hill and other local departments, wear gear made with the fiber, Reeves said.

PBI Performance Products was struggling to find its place in a changing textile industry when it was purchased in 2005 by the InterTech Group in Charleston.

"A textile company had to find a way to reinvent itself. We reinvented ourselves as a material science company," Reeves said.

At the Rock Hill plant, the fibers are manufactured and sold to companies that make fabric blends used in the outer shell of protective gear for firefighters, military and industrial workers. These fabrics will not melt, drip or break open when exposed to extreme heat.

Gear containing the fiber can withstand 2,000-degree heat for 10 seconds -- the equivalent of direct flame from a high heat source such as a welding torch, Reeves said.

Such heat resistance enables the gear to protect firefighters during dangerous conditions such as a flashover, where temperatures in a burning room become so high that materials in the room instantaneously combust, Reeves said.

"When this happens, a firefighter has precious seconds," he said. "It gives them 10 seconds to get out. It is designed for that extreme. For a time that you hope they never have to use."

Klepper, logistics officer for the Rock Hill Fire Department, said he has seen fire retardant gear made from products other than PBI crumple at high temperatures.

Klepper said Rock Hill firefighters use only gear made with the PBI fiber because the material resists breaking apart in extreme heat and has a long life span.

Military using PBI products

The company also is developing protective clothing for the military. Tactics used against the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq have established the need for improved flame protection, said Scott Groshans, vice president of operations.

"A new threat has been a burn threat from roadside bombs," he said.

Products are being used to protect U.S. Army personnel and are being evaluated by all armed services.

Last summer, PBI Performance Products delivered 360,000 hoods made with its flame-resistant fiber to the U.S. Army to be used in Afghanistan.

In addition to meeting the increasing demand for its fiber, the company is expanding to develop new technologies using its polymer.

"We see our material enabling technology in the 21st century -- exploring frontiers of space, cleaning the environment and keeping first responders safe in a much more dangerous world," Reeves said.

The polymer can withstand high temperatures, contact with corrosive chemicals and exposure to high pressures, which make it useful for futuristic technology such as separating carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, Groshans said.

Expansion in design phase

The design phase of the expansion will begin in January and will take about 15 months. Groundbreaking is expected to begin by mid-2010. Reeves said over five years, the plant will be hiring hourly workers and professionals such as chemists and engineers.

PBI Performance Products is headquartered in Charlotte. Its only manufacturing facility is in Rock Hill and it has global sales offices in England, Germany, Spain and Hong Kong.