Armstrong says the harsher the climate, the more the hemp produces a really tough fiber. “In Alberta, it does well here. We’re purposely stressing the plant to produce a stronger fiber. Man-made synthetic materials are easy, because of the predictability. Natural fibers bring the element of natural-growth variances, which is a challenge we’re going to have to learn to work with, if bio-fibers are to make a bigger impact in the composite industry,” says Armstrong.
“We might find we can get material to make the primary structure that is 90-percent natural. Hybridization is where it’s going to get interesting—it’s like a composite-composite, using a blend of natural and synthetic fibers and fillers to achieve the best performance possible, says Armstrong. “We are looking into carbon nanotubes, nano-crystalline cellulose fibers and mixing in traditional fibers such as carbon and silica.”
He says the goal is to produce materials containing the highest percentage of natural fibers possible that are capable of absorbing secondary loads, while still meeting performance requirements like lifecycle, creep, durability, and price point. “We might find this is around 50 to 60 percent for a part like a floor plan, for example, while 80 to 90 percent plant-fiber content might be possible for parts like fenders and hoods,” he says.
The hemp-based components are 10 percent lighter and 20 percent cheaper than fiberglass, Armstrong explains. “With the supply chain getting quite big in a natural fiber, the difference between the two might become more dramatic in the next five years. Fiberglass requires a huge amount of energy. The complete manufacturing cycle’s true price isn’t being reflected. There could be potentially more savings in volume purchased between the two,” he says.
“The sweet spot for composite materials is 5,000 to 15,000 [production units] per year. Above these numbers, composites have had a harder time competing with steel,” says Armstrong. “At 5,000 to 15,000 per year in production, it’s largely a savings on tooling. But, we can still best metal with the ability to manufacture advance design language and provide weight savings.”