Untapped Application Possibilities of Natural Fibers

Composites Manufacturing Blog featured this article.

Within the “green” movement is a desire to use natural fibers within composite products.  However studies have shown that despite their benefits, natural fibers struggle in two areas. But why do those negatives often outweigh some glaring advantages of a 7 billion pound industry? “Natural Fibers for Composites 101: When, Why and How to Replace Fiberglass with Kenaf/Jute/Flax” presented by Larry Dickinson, president of 3F, addressed these sometimes frustrating issues.

“There is a big appeal for natural fiber, “says Dickinson. “It’s renewable, has a lower density, is recyclable, is cheaper than synthetic materials and has a greater specific strength, meaning the strength to density ratio is incredible.” According to the Department of Energy (DOE) natural fibers could reduce vehicle weight 50 percent. Among the most promising and well known materials in the natural fibers world are flax, jute, kenaf and hemp. Other materials like banana, pineapple, coconut shells and flax have yet untapped potential. “These products may seem strange but as a composite manufacture you need to look at how the fiber works in the end product, not the fiber itself. 90 percent of the time, bio-products   have a higher stiffness over strength ratio than FRP—and this is a design driven industry!” he says.

Yet, barriers remain. Barriers like the lack of a technology push, lack of market pull due to uncertainty in changing federal regulations, quality and consistency issues (it can’t be processed affordably in the U.S.), lack of supply—it’s a growing industry in Europe, Asia and Canada but remains illegal or unknown within the U.S.—and the two wild cards: moisture absorption and interface of the fiber and resin. “Mother nature made natural fibers to suck up water, which unfortunately affects the interface properties within composite applications. So far, many of the remedies companies have tried don’t completely solve the problem,” says Dickinson. However, he is most certain that remedies are on the horizon. Remedies that will ultimately do what every composite company seeks to accomplish, namely develop a better quality product and reduce costs. One point for Mother Nature.