Advances in biobased fibers are moving green composites from the sideline to the mainline.

The replacement of glass and carbon fiber with biobased fiber for the production of composite materials is gaining traction for a number of reasons – weight savings and sustainability key among them. Market research firm Lucintel expects the natural fiber composites market to grow 11.2 percent from 2014 to 2019. The Lucintel study points to increasing penetration in automotive, building and construction and electrical/electronic end markets.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is keeping an eye on applications through its BioPreferred program, a mandatory federal procurement program that requires federal agencies to buy and use biobased products and maintains a voluntary “USDA Certified Biobased Product” labeling program. BioPreferred Program Manager Ron Buckhalt believes that biobased fibers offer a win-win for stakeholders in both potential cost savings and reductions in density and weight. “Farmers benefit from new markets, the environment benefits from renewable-source products and the country will be less dependent on imported petroleum [used as a precursor for carbon fiber],” says Buckhalt.

Bamboo Fibers

These bamboo fibers have been dyed to provide a purely aesthetic option for the cosmetic layer of a laminate.

He cites viable applications in sporting goods, ship building, mass transit, furniture and biomedical devices. “There’s a Department of Defense (DOD) application research project underway comparing biobased fiber composites as an alternative to carbon fiber composite material to reduce weight and improve performance for DOD applications including weapons platforms,” says Buckhalt.

North Dakota State University (NDSU) is among the academic institutions with research resources dedicated to the development of natural fiber-based composites to bring added value to the state’s agricultural base. “If we can take byproducts and convert them to a higher value-added product, we diversify our agricultural industry,” says Chad Ulven, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering at NDSU. “We think of plants as an engineering material rather than just as food.”

According to Lucintel, the automotive industry is among the largest users of all natural fiber composite applications. The need for lightweight vehicles to meet looming Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards makes natural fibers an attractive option. Added to that is a growing bias from consumers towards environmentally-friendly products and manufacturers’ desire to increase the sustainability of their manufacturing processes.

“Many non-primary automotive structures are compatible with natural fiber systems,” says Trey Riddle, Ph.D., CEO of Gradient Engineering, a service provider for the design and analysis of polymer reinforced composites in Bozeman, Mont. Interior systems such as dashboards, door panel backings and trunk components where heat is not an issue are currently in production and benefit from biobased fibers’ contribution to noise and vibration damping.