Natural Fiber Composites: The Future of Sustainable Materials

Natural Fiber Composites Commercial interest in flax and hemp fiber-reinforced composites is growing into higher-performance, higher-volume applications, driven by global and industry-wide sustainability goals.

New markets for natural fibers Composites. Increasingly larger-scale commercial initiatives have replaced specialized applications and R&D laboratories in recent years, changing the scene for natural fiber materials (materials, processes, and end markets). The top left image shows Formula 1 and other racing uses. The top right image shows skis and other athletic products. The bottom left image shows furniture and other interior applications. The bottom right image shows interiors of automobiles. Super Formula, via Bcomp Ltd.; ZAG Skis / Juan Cruz, via Bcomp Ltd.; Autonational; Lingrove are the photo’s sources, from left to right.

Natural fibers have been used for thousands of years and come from plant-based sources like flax, hemp, jute, or bamboo. However, natural fiber-reinforced composites (NFC) as we currently define them have only recently gained popularity, with commercial uses slowly starting to appear over the past ten years.

The commercial adoption of natural fibers in composites has been relatively slow, despite the sustainability appeal of a plant-based, renewable alternative to carbon or glass fiber. This is because of industry challenges like a lack of supply, variable fiber quality, limited mechanical performance in finished parts, differences in manufacturability, and, depending on the material, higher material costs than fiberglass.

The Present And Future Of Composites

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Nevertheless, there has been significant development in the last ten years, particularly in the field of flax fiber composites, and progress is still being made. In spite of university studies highlighting flax fiber’s benefits, particularly its low density which contributes to lightweight composite parts, flax was not widely used in industrial applications ten years ago, according to Laurent Cazenave, communications officer at the cooperative of flax farmers Terre de Lin (Saint-Pierre-le-Viger, France).

The first significant use cases were makers of sports goods with a focus on sustainability who produced items like tennis rackets and skis, and they emerged from years of academic and industry study. As time goes on, different “players, projects, and industrial successes have gradually given [NFCs] visibility and credibility,” according to Cazenave.

CW reported in 2013 that biocomposites, which include both natural fibers and bio-based resins, were starting to become commercially viable and competitive with more established synthetic fiber products. At the time, cellulose fiber, which is made into homogeneous fibers by processing plant-derived pulp, seemed to be the leading challenger in the natural fiber market. By the time of CW’s 2016 article on the same subject, flax fiber had risen to become the natural fiber of choice for sports goods applications and some automobile parts thanks to advancements in performance and expanded processing choices, with bamboo fiber research showing promise.

The importance of sustainability has grown during the last two to three years. Standards are now the driving force behind sustainability, which was formerly a niche interest centered on emissions reduction. Decarbonization-friendly materials and process solutions are in demand from governments, regulatory bodies, original equipment manufacturers, and consumers.

For instance, the EU’s 2022 European Green Deal offered a number of methods that would require that items created in the EU, from textiles to building materials, be constructed from sustainable, recyclable, or recycled resources.

In addition to supply chain and technological developments in natural fiber materials and techniques to convert them into composites, this push for sustainability solutions is fostering R&D and commercial expansion into new industries.

Landscape With Natural Fiber Composites

How does the NFC market look today? The Alliance for European Flax-Linen & Hemp (Paris, France) collects information on the supply, demand, and uses for flax and hemp from its member providers throughout Europe. The majority of natural fibers used in composites nowadays are flax fibers, according to Chantal Malingrey, director of marketing and communication, even if composites are still a very tiny end market for these fibers in comparison to the much older fashion and textile sectors. “In broad terms, we typically say the breakdown is 60% for fashion textiles, 30% for furniture textiles, and 10% for technical applications, which includes composites.”

Malingrey claims that the demand for natural fibers has been “significantly growing since 2020, nevertheless. Natural fibers used to be more of a research and development project a few years ago, but now fully formed goods are starting to hit the market.

In addition to the fact that they are made from renewable resources, these materials are becoming more popular due to their aesthetic value as well as technical benefits in composites including lightweighting and vibration and noise dampening. According to Nicolas Juillard, vice president of technology and development at materials supplier Texonic Inc. (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Canada), the attraction of NFCs in applications like car interior components is expanding notably due to vibration and noise dampening. Since 2012, Texonic, a subsidiary of the Textile Monterey Group (Drummondville, Quebec, Canada), has been doing research and development with a number of partners to improve natural fibers for use in composites. In 2017, Texonic introduced its first flax fiber fabric line.

According to Juillard, Texonic is still engaged in research and development (R&D) activities to create and improve other materials for use in NFCs, with a strong emphasis on hemp fiber, whose availability and consumption are both continuing to increase. According to him, the location of the supply is more important than the characteristics of one type of fiber over another when picking natural fiber materials. At the moment, flax is mostly produced in Europe due, in large part, to climate, but the market for hemp agriculture is expanding in North America.

Overcoming Processing Problems

The variety of NFC materials has increased recently, but according to Texonic’s Juillard, processing restrictions compared to conventional fiber materials continue to be a barrier to NFC growth. Despite the fact that natural fiber materials may be produced using a number of techniques, including prepreg layup/autoclave cure, compression molding, and RTM, certain difficulties still exist.

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