These SAPs are superior to fluff in their ability to absorb large volumes of aqueous body fluids, such as urine (i.e., at least about 15 g/g), thus making smaller, thinner absorbent structures feasible. In addition SAP particles typically pack closer than fibrous structures, thus achieving even thinner cores at elevated concentrations.
These SAPs are often made by initially polymerizing unsaturated carboxylic acids or derivatives thereof, such as acrylic acid, alkali metal (e.g., sodium and/or potassium) or ammonium salts of acrylic acid, alkyl acrylates, and the like. These polymers are rendered water-insoluble, yet water-swellable, by slightly cross-linking the carboxyl group-containing polymer chains with conventional di- or poly-functional monomer materials, such as N, N'-methylene-bisacryl-amide, trimethylol-propane-triacrylate or triallyl-amine. These slightly cross-linked absorbent polymers still comprise a multiplicity of anionic (charged) carboxyl groups attached to the polymer backbone. It is these charged carboxyl groups that enable the polymer to absorb body fluids as the result of osmotic forces, thus forming hydrogels.
The degree of cross-linking determines not only the water-insolubility of these SAPs, but is also an important factor in establishing two other characteristics of these polymers: their absorbent capacity and gel strength.
Absorbent capacity or "gel volume" is a measure of the amount of water or body fluid that a given amount of SAPs will absorb. Gel strength relates to the tendency of the SAPs to deform or "flow" under an applied stress. SAPs useful as absorbents in absorbent structures and articles such as disposable diapers need to have adequately high gel volume, as well as adequately high gel strength. Gel volume needs to be sufficiently high to enable the SAP to absorb significant amounts of the aqueous body fluids encountered during use of the absorbent article. Gel strength needs to be such that the SAP formed does not deform and fill to an unacceptable degree the capillary void spaces in the absorbent structure or article, thereby inhibiting the absorbent capacity of the structure/article, as well as the fluid distribution throughout the structure/article.
Prior absorbent structures have generally comprised relatively low amounts (e.g., less than about 50 % by weight) of these SAPs. There are several reasons for this. The SAPs employed in prior absorbent structures have generally not had an absorption rate that would allow them to quickly absorb body fluids, especially in "gush" situations. This has necessitated the inclusion of fibers, typically wood pulp fibers, to serve as temporary reservoirs to hold the discharged fluids until absorbed by the SAP.
More importantly, many of the known SAPs exhibited gel blocking.
"Gel blocking" occurs when particles of the SAP are wetted and the particles swell so as to inhibit fluid transmission to other regions of the absorbent structure. Wetting of these other regions of the absorbent member therefore takes place via a very slow diffusion process. In practical terms, this means acquisition of fluids by the absorbent structure is much slower than the rate at which fluids are discharged, especially in gush situations. Leakage from the absorbent article can take place well before the particles of SAP in the absorbent member are even close to being fully saturated or before the fluid can diffuse or wick past the "blocking" particles into the rest of the absorbent member. Gel blocking can be a particularly acute problem if the particles of SAP do not have adequate gel strength and deform or spread under stress once the particles swell with absorbed fluid.
This gel blocking phenomena has typically necessitated the use of a fibrous matrix in which are dispersed the particles of SAP. This fibrous matrix keeps the particles of SAP separated from one another. This fibrous matrix also provides a capillary structure that allows fluid to reach the SAP located in regions remote from the initial fluid discharge point. However, dispersing the SAP in a fibrous matrix at relatively low concentrations in order to minimize or avoid gel blocking can lower the overall fluid storage capacity of thinner absorbent structures. Usage of lower concentrations of these SAPs limits somewhat the real advantage of these materials, namely their ability to absorb and retain large quantities of body fluids per given volume.
Another reason why extremely high concentrations of SAP were not possible resides in the physical integrity disadvantage of structures made of particulate material. Creating a fibrous matrix therefore also had the advantage of providing a fiber re-enforced structure, similar to those used in many other technical situations where structural re-enforcement is provided by fibrous elements, such as in fiberglass.
Besides increasing gel strength, other physical and chemical characteristics of these SAPs have been manipulated to improve their performance especially to decrease gel blocking.