The field of composites came into its own in the past 40 years because of two developments: high-performance fibers and high-performance, petroleum-based plastic resins. Then in October 1999, FlexForm Technologies began commercial production of natural-fiber composites at its facility in Elkhart, Indiana. Natural fiber composites, more specifically Kenaf or Tossa are used to make seat backs, packaging trays, door inserts, load floors, pillars, among other items, in vehicle interiors.
Kenaf stalks, which are comparable in strength to carbon or glass, are replacing fiberglass, and polypropylene is replacing liquid resin, which eliminates a lot of the toxic chemicals for workers. The long-fibered kenaf-composite panels are more flexible and shatter-resistant during accidents than fiberglass. As an additional bonus, natural fibers are very ductile and they don’t splinter, so they manage energy well during side impacts, and they weigh about 30 percent less than traditional wood-based materials.
Natural fiber plastic composites are formed when a fiber sheet is heated along with propylene and molded. The now sticky sheet, which forms a stiff panel backing, is then pressed against the door fabric, eliminating the extra step of applying a toxic adhesive. Kenaf fiber mixed with a thermal plastic like polypropylene can be remelted and reused more easily.
Thermoplastic composites can replace wood in many applications. Although the basic material costs may be higher, less material is used, so there is much less waste. Natural Fiber composites can be lower cost and stiffer, and you can mold them, which you can’t do with pure wood, and they’re recyclable. As wood becomes scarcer, and materials like jute and kenaf are plentiful. Kenaf grows fully in seven months, tolerates drought, and does not require extensive herbicides. It grows in regions where cotton and tobacco thrive.
However, for consumers to buy environmental materials, they must be equal or better in performance than traditional products. Consumers will buy environmental materials, but they won’t pay extra for them.
For further information regarding the use of natural fiber in a vehicle, visit www.FlexformTech.com to learn about molding the future with natural fiber composites.