Plant fiber could help auto industry shed weight

Larry C. Dickinson, Founder and CEO, of 3F, LLC, in Raleigh, N.C., developed a method to streamline the in- corporation of fast-growing Kanef fibers into composites, reducing the amount of fiberglass.

Kanef, a close relative to the hemp and jute botanicals, grows 12 to 15 feet tall during a three-to-four month growing season, says Dickinson. The plants’ lengthy fibers allow “all the stress carried by the fiber to be trans- lated through the plastic to the adjoining fiber,” he says, and the fibers can be cut to length.

“You can make nice fiber-reinforced flake composites,” he says, “but they’re not that strong, especially compared to fiberglass, so why is anybody going to switch?” Yet, he says an auto industry bent on shaving pounds from vehicles to meet national goals for increasing gas mileage is proving to be a game changer for this growing niche industry.

“Right now the fiberglass composites industry is trying to get the automotive industry to make cars out of composites instead of metal,” he says. “Natural fibers are pretty strong and stiff and they are appealing compared to fiberglass, especially on a weight basis,” he says.

Dickinson’s company has developed solutions for both lightening and strengthening composites. “When it comes to natural fiber-form composites, you want the fiber to reinforce the plastic resin, and the reinforcement for the fiber carries the load — the main strand maintains stiffness and the plastic holds it all together and transfers load from one fiber to another,” he says. This requires an interface between the plastic and the fiber.

Separating natural kenaf fibers at the 3F, LLC facility in Raleigh, N.

Separating natural kenaf fibers at the 3F, LLC facility in Raleigh, N.

He says the second problem is that plant fibers wick moisture, which breaks the interface bond. Although he declined to provide specifics on the company’s proprietary technology, Dickinson said his company has developed a technical solution to the moisture issue, as well as enhancing the biometrics interface strand. “We believe, once we fully develop this thing, it will enable natural fibers to replace fiberglass.” He anticipates his solution could be on the market in form of a well-funded project in less than two years.

Ford Motor Company incorporated kenaf into the 2012 Ford Escape’s bolster, and its use is expected to offset 300,000 pounds of oil-based resin per year in North America, according to the automaker’s January 26, 2012, press release.

Solegear Bioplastics, in North Vancouver, B.C., another company that is already known for its efforts in innova- tive compostable plastics, has also developed a solution for incorporating more biomaterial in composites. “We’re taking traditional petroleum-based products and we’re loading it up to between 20 and 60 percent with natural fibers,” says Toby Reid, founder and CEO of the company. “The crux of it was to be able to extract that moisture out in an efficient and economic way. We managed to do that through a series of techniques, but that was the biggest nut to crack,” he says.