The results? Lewit trimmed the weight of the current RHIBs from 1,200 pounds to 482—shaving away nearly 60 percent of the weight. Because of that, the boats are also burning less fuel. “We were definitely excited,” Lewit said. “Now, we’ve got to build it.”
That opportunity will arrive soon enough. Lewit and Structural Composites recently received a $245,000 grant through the Florida Research Commercialization Matching Grant Program, one of only 13 companies across the state to receive any money at all. “The preliminary design is almost finished now and will be finalized in November,” Lewit said. We’ll build it in March and April next year, and then the Navy will evaluate it for another year from that point. “Our mission,” he said, “is to get it out and get it deployed.”
Untapped Application Possibilities of Natural Fibers
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 (the fibers 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 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.