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Adrian Wilson

Editor's Viewpoint

1st April 2019, Paris

The strong case for natural alternatives at JEC World 2019

At JEC World last month, CELC showcased the developments of a range of its member companies. © Inside Composites

At JEC World last month, CELC showcased the developments of a range of its member companies. © Inside Composites

The European Confederation of Flax and Hemp (CELC) – the agro-industrial organisation bringing together some 10,000 companies at all stages of the production and transformation of these natural fibres – continues to report inroads into the composites world.

At JEC World in Paris last month, the developments of a range of its member companies were showcased and two of them were nominated for Innovation Awards.

Porsche project

Switzerland’s Bcomp was recognised for its work on the development of series-based biocomposites in a project with Porsche and the research organisation Fraunhofer Hofzet.

The aim has been to demonstrate that it is possible to use natural fibres in processes compatible with series production.

The development of a door (as a body part), and a rear wing, (as a dynamically-loaded component) for a motorsport vehicle, have emphasised the relationship between application and material selection, requiring the implementation of different load cases. The components are said to have met the requirements with almost the same weight as components made of carbon fibre-reinforced alternatives.

To achieve this, the tool geometry was adapted and specific properties of renewable raw materials were used. Balsa wood was successfully used as a sandwich core for the door leaf. With 25% less fibres, a similar bending stiffness was achieved as in the comparable component made of carbon fibre. For the rear wing, Bcomp’s PowerRibs lattice structures were used instead of a core, so layers were saved and a high load of about 300 kg could still be collected in use. The resin transfer moulding process is used for the doors and the rear wing is manufactured in an autoclave process.

Bcomp was recognised for its work on the development of biocomposites in a project with Porsche. © Bcomp

Bcomp was recognised for its work on the development of biocomposites in a project with Porsche. © Bcomp

By adapting the process and modifying the tools, the project has demonstrated that it is possible to process natural fibres in series-compatible processes – despite the natural variation of their properties. For example, the challenge of a gap-free balsa wood core as a core material in the RTM process was successfully met. The components are already produced in small series of 700 vehicles by means of conventional serial production processes, clearly distinguishing this door from a prototype and showing the application potential of a natural fibre-reinforced composite material.

Soluboard

Eco-Technilin, of Valliquerville, France, was nominated for its joint development of a new material called Soluboard with London-based materials science company Jiva Materials.

This patent pending new material has been designed as a replacement for the current PCBs (printed circuit boards), the majority of which currently have insulating layers made of a standard glass fibre and epoxy resins composite material called FR-4.

Soluboard’s primary ingredient is FlaxTape, a patented tape consisting of unidirectional flax fibres with a lower density than carbon and glass fibres. The unidirectional orientation of the flax fibres means they can be efficiently arranged to form the multilayer bio-composite structure of Soluboard, giving the material strong mechanical properties.

As a direct replacement for FR-4, with the same price and improved sustainability, Soluboard could serve to lower the impact from Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) and the carbon footprint generated by electronic and electrical products.

Properties

CELC points out that the use of flax and hemp as reinforcements for composites can exploit a range of useful properties including:

  • Impact response
  • Fatigue behaviour
  • Biodegradability
  • Radio wave transparency
  • Low density (1.5 vs. 2.54 for glass fibre)
  • Higher specific stiffness than for glass fibre
  • Better vibration damping than for carbon or glass fibre
  • Better thermal insulation than for carbon fibre
  • Better acoustic insulation than for carbon or glass fibre
  • Recyclability

Sustainable incentives

Then there is the case for the cultivation of such natural fibres.  The production of flax in Europe results in the capture of some 250,000 tons of CO2 each year – equivalent to the CO2 emissions generated by a Renault Clio car driving around the world 62,000 times.

EcoTechnilin recyclable PCBs. © EcoTechnilin

EcoTechnilin recyclable PCBs. © EcoTechnilin

Added to this, can be energy savings – taking the energy needed to produce one kg of fibres as a comparative parameter, flax requires under 10 MJ/kg, or five times less than glass fibre, and 25 times less than carbon fibre.

Flax is also renewable resource, requiring zero irrigation, zero GMOs and zero waste and a natural and mechanical process is employed in its conversion.

Finally, factor in the strong contribution to employment that flax and hemp cultivation and conversion make in rural areas and there’s a strong case for the adoption of these fibres by the composites industry – wherever it proves possible.

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