Overview

Increasing use of geosynthetics across infrastructure sectors

Geosynthetics are increasingly being accepted as construction material in different fields of civil engineering. Every stream of civil engineering – geotechnical, hydraulic, environmental and transportation engineering – use geosynthetics to increase the life-span of infrastructure assets. These are used primarily because of the advantages that these materials offer – improved performance and durability as well as increased productivity of infrastructure assets.

Industry size and growth

It is estimated that about 3 billion square metres (sq. m) of geotextiles were used across the world in 2015. Of this, about 50 per cent was deployed by China.

As per industry estimates, the demand for geosynthetics in India was estimated to be 100 million sq. m in 2013, and this is expected to grow to 178 million sq. m by 2018. The Working Group on Textiles and Jute for the Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012-17) projects the national geotechnical textile market to grow to Rs 1.108 billion at a rate of 22 per cent during the plan period.

Some of the key players in the geosynthetics market in India at present are Strata Geosystems, Techfab Geosynthetics, Terram India, GeosIndex, Enviro Geosynthetics Private Limited, Gayatri Polymers and Geosynthetics Limited, and GEOfabrics. Some of the key importers in the Indian market are Garware Wall Ropes, Maccaferri India, Terram, and Archana Structural Engineering (Huesker products only), while some of the key exporters are Ambica Polymers, SKAPs Industries and TechFab.

Range of products and applications

Geosynthetics are polymer-based man-made materials used with soil, rocks, earth or geotechnical engineering-related material as an integral part of infrastructure projects. There are eight main product categories – geotextiles, geogrids, geonets, geomembranes, geosynthetic clay liners, geofoam, geocells and geocomposites. Besides, geotextiles, which are a natural variant of geosynthetics, are used in infrastructure projects. Within this segment, jute-based geotextiles have emerged as a strong alternative to synthetic geotextiles. The products are available in a wide range of forms and materials, to suit different end-uses.

The key to taking advantage of all the benefits of geosynthetics lies in their proper selection, correct design and assured quality. Geosynthetics are generally designed for a particular application/soil condition by examining the main objective. There are five primary functions of geosynthetics – separation, reinforcement, filtration, drainage and containment.

The potential for geosynthetic use is dependent on the soil type of the project area. Some of the areas where these materials can be used are black cotton soil for geosynthetic materials, coastal and delta regions for band drains, hilly terrain involving erosion control for geotextiles (synthetic and natural), and reinforced soil structures for polymeric geosynthetics.

Awareness regarding the benefits of geosynthetics actually started increasing after 2005 when international consultants started incorporating it in their designs. Multilateral funding agencies like the World Bank have also made the use of geosynthetics mandatory in infrastructure projects funded by them. According to industry experts, there are three broad groups of stakeholders using geosynthetics in India at present – contracting agencies, concessionaires/contractors and design consultants.

Geosynthetics are used extensively in road and bridge projects. In addition, they are also widely used in railway, airport and seaport projects. Besides transport, they are also extensively used in the construction of dams and embankment canals, drainage works, irrigation, solid waste management and soil erosion prevention in coastal areas and riverbanks. Although geosynthetics add to the initial project costs, their use increases the service life of structures and reduces maintenance costs, thereby resulting in long-term cost savings.

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Issues and challenges

A key issue in the geosynthetics segment is the lack of regulations for promoting their use. These materials should be accorded priority based on the resulting improved performance and their long-term guarantee in meeting customer expectations. The ground rules for the evaluation of geosynthetic materials used in construction must take into account all safety requirements. These rules should also provide for a review of specifications whenever changes occur in consumer requirements. Further, government authorities should issue guidelines for geotextile use in infrastructure projects which must include unified code/specifications.

Second, there is an absence of quality control measures in the country at present. Industry players have recommended the setting up of testing facilities, standardisation of technology, and clarity in specifications of geosynthetic materials/products or services taking into account quantitative and qualitative parameters, design characteristics and functional characteristics based on the best testing methods. Also, the formulation of standards for different geotextiles by the government and the Bureau of Indian Standards in line with international standards to facilitate adherence to functional requirements is another urgent requirement.

Third, there is an acute shortfall of trained manpower in the segment. At present, the use of geosynthetic products is constrained due to the lack of trained personnel. Going forward, geosynthetics need to be included as a subject in the academic programme for civil engineers. In addition, training and education programmes need to be started for those already working in the segment. Knowledge about and information on geosynthetics should be disseminated at all levels. There is also a need for close interaction among users, manufacturers, and research and academic institutions in the development process. An interactive approach between civil engineers and geotextile producers needs to be adopted so that solutions to challenges faced by the former can be addressed by the latter through product development.

Lastly, the investment in research and development (R&D) is very minuscule and needs to be increased going forward. Currently, R&D expenditure made by the government and private manufacturers is very low as compared to their foreign counterparts. Such expenditure must be stepped up for the use of geosynthetics in infrastructure projects.

Conclusion

The continued growth in the use of geosynthetics reaffirms that they have emerged as viable construction materials, both on account of sustainability and being environment friendly. However, the industry has not realised their full potential owing to lower than expected penetration of geotextiles in various infrastructure projects.

The renewed emphasis on fast-tracking infrastructure development by the government augurs well for the geosynthetics market. The use of geosynthetic products by state agencies needs to be encouraged keeping in mind significant state-level and city-level spends on infrastructure. This holds for rural areas as well.

Finally, there is a need to enhance awareness of this useful and versatile material among the various user agencies engaged in infrastructure development. Also, public sector projects must maximise the use of geosynthetics and accord preference to local manufacturers for all civil projects.

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