Biobased Composites

Bio composites lend wings to sustainability trend

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  • Packaging industry is the most important market for “green” composites
  • Bio-Based Composites Pavilion at COMPOSITES EUROPE

Making renewable raw materials usable for CFR lightweight construction – is something not just numerous researchers but also industry players are working on. What exactly they are researching and how the market for green composite materials will develop will also be on show at COMPOSITES EUROPE in Stuttgart from 6 to 8 November 2018. As part of the “Bio-Based Composites Pavilion” this trade fair will be showcasing innovative materials and application examples in cooperation with the nova Institut.

Car prototypes made of hemp fibres and soya flour

Henry Ford was a versatile pioneer. As early as in the 1920s he was interested in plastics made from agricultural products such as hemp fibres and soy flour. From this he designed car prototypes with corresponding body parts, including a boot lid. It was so stable that Ford hit it with an axe for an advertising clip – without destroying it. His "Soybean Car" from the 1940s, whose body panels were made of soy-containing plastic, also became famous.

Today, almost 80 years later, bio composites are back in fashion, especially in view of the need for sustainability. According to a study published in 2015 by the VDI Centre for Resource Efficiency, Inventory of Lightweight Construction in Germany, plastics mechanically reinforced with natural fibres made of hemp, flax or cotton are already established in automotive engineering, especially for interior applications, as they are economically competitive. The materials also score points with a low susceptibility to splintering during crashes and good sound insulation.

Bio plastics ensure more hygiene for diapers

And developments go on: various research institutes are currently busy producing carbon fibres based on lignin (wood pulp) in order to make renewable raw materials usable for CFRP lightweight construction. Together with Belgian colleagues, scientists at RWTH Aachen University have developed environmentally friendly car components made entirely of plant fibres and bio plastics. The industry is also active. Toyota uses PLA (polylactic acid) based seat cushions, floor mats and side panels in some models. The tyre manufacturer Continental is working on tyres made of dandelion rubber.

Bio plastics are also replacing conventional crude-oil derived products in numerous other industries, such as the packaging industry. In addition to the good image, numerous better properties are also responsible for this. They are therefore suitable for fresh produce and perishable foods, as fruit and vegetables remain fresh longer due to bio plastics’ greater breathability. A benefit that also has a positive impact when they are converted into hygienic films, for example in diapers. Last but not least, legislation in many countries promotes the use of bio plastics in the packaging sector. For example, in many countries non-degradable plastic bags are completely prohibited or their use is discouraged by the charging of fees.

Bio-Based Composites Pavilion

This is an important step, as the packaging industry is by far the most important sales sector for "green" composites. Bottles, films, bags and pouches, in particular, consist of around 58% bio plastics.  They are followed by textiles (11%), consumer goods (7%) and automotive (7%). Interested parties can also find out more about this topic in the Bio-Based Composites Pavilion at Composites Europe. Exhibitors such as DEHONDT COMPOSITES, SAFILIN, the Agency for Renewable Resources, Arctic Biomaterials and Biowert Industrie are available here as experts to advise on the possible applications and properties of wood-polymer composites (WPC), natural fibre composites (NFC), bio-based thermoplastics and thermoset plastics for composites and bio-based plastics.

Continuous growth thanks to rising sustainability requirements

At 2.05 million tonnes in 2017, the global production capacity of bio plastics is still relatively modest compared to the 320 million tonnes of crude-oil based plastics produced annually. However, increasing sustainability requirements, more demanding applications and an increasing number of materials and manufacturers promise continuous growth in the future.

The experts at the Nova Institute and European Bioplastics expect global production capacity to reach 2.44 million tonnes by 2022 creating up to 300,000 highly qualified jobs by 2030 – in Europe alone. The experts at the market research institute Ceresana also state that bio plastics achieve significantly higher growth rates than conventional standard plastics. In view of rising demand and an ever-widening range of applications, this trend is set to intensify even further. In the market analysis of 2016, total global sales of "green" plastics are expected to exceed USD 2.6 billion.

0.02% of global agricultural land for bioplastics production

Experts distinguish between biodegradable plastics that can be composted (biodegrable) and bio-based plastics that are produced from renewable raw materials (bio-based). While biodegradable plastics account for around 43% of global demand for bioplastics, they are characterised by more dynamic volume growth of over 11% annually. According to the Agency for Renewable Resources (FNR), bio-based polymers make up about 1.5% of structural polymers. Current forecasts assume that this percentage will more than double by 2020.

According to the FNR, fears that the quantities of raw materials required for the growth of the bio plastics market will come at the expense of urgently needed cultivation areas are currently still unfounded. This year, around 0.02% of the world's agricultural land will be used to provide renewable raw materials for bio composites production. Therefore, the key factor here is actually to establish a sustainable cycle that extends from production to production, from use – if possible in the form of multiple use – to the use of the waste produced.