When Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites fills an order for carbon fiber sheets and fiberglass tubes, they are selling synthetic materials that owe their construction to chemistry at an atomic level. By contrast, a buyer buying wood from a lumber yard is purchasing a natural product that only requires human intervention for processing. The differences between the two kinds of materials is vast. But what if you could combine the two?
Synthetic materials certainly have their advantages, advantages that we cannot overlook. But so too do natural materials. Combining the strongest points of both is the goal of a team of researchers at the University of Portsmouth in Hampshire, England. They are working with other researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Brittany, France.
The team has successfully developed a composite material based in date palm fiber biomass. The material is a plant-based waste material that researchers believe could be used to construct non-structural parts currently being made with synthetic composites. Should they realize their goals, agricultural waste could go on to enhance future composites in the following three ways:
1. Materials that Biodegrade
The term ‘biomass’ generally describes waste material that comes from a variety of natural sources. We are talking sewage, food waste, agricultural waste, etc. The major benefit of using such waste to create composites is that the resulting materials biodegrade. Unlike carbon fiber, which could sit in a landfill for thousands of years without decomposing, a bio-composite will break down and be reabsorbed by the environment.
A biodegradable composite would address much of the concern currently surrounding carbon fiber waste ending up in landfills. Imagine replacing millions of carbon fiber car bumpers with a bio-composite alternative. We could dispose of scrapped bumpers in landfills with the knowledge that they would biodegrade alongside everything else.
2. Lower Manufacturing Costs
Cost continues to be one of the most prohibitive factors keeping composites from going mainstream. For example, while the aerospace and marine industries consume quite a bit of composite material, especially carbon fiber, they are the exception to the rule. Synthetic composites are just too expensive for a lot of other industries.
Composites made of agricultural waste would be less expensive – at least in theory. They can be manufactured at a lower price point because the process does not require nearly as much energy as synthetic composites. Moreover, agricultural waste is already in the correct atomic state. Unlike carbon, it doesn’t have to be atomically realigned before being deployed as a composite base.
3. Better Recycling Capabilities
Last but not least is recycling. Carbon fiber and fiberglass recycling is quite expensive right now. Furthermore, recycling synthetic composites reduces overall strength and quality, meaning recycled materials are limited to non-structural components. This suggests that recycling carbon fiber, while desirable, creates an intrinsic loss of value.
Even though bio-composites wouldn’t be used for structural applications anyway, recycling is far easier and more cost-effective. Recycling would not reduce value as much because of the way these composites would be employed. Thus, the recycling market would actually enhance the use of bio-composites in a way that synthetic composite recycling cannot.
Researchers admit that they are still a long way off from mass-producing bio-composites capable of competing with the synthetic products already on the market. But they believe their goals are very achievable.
Who knows? A decade from now the car in your driveway might have a composite body made almost entirely of palm fiber. You could be driving around in a car that owes its existence to the date palm. Wouldn’t that be interesting?