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Natural fibre composites to benefit major industries

The fibres and textiles competence area at the CSIR is undertaking research into natural fibres, such as flax, hemp, sisal, agave and kenaf to apply these as natural fibre reinforced composites in particularly automotive and aerospace components. These composites can contribute to considerable cost-savings while at the same time being environmentally friendly..

Natural fibres as glass substitute
Future industries
Collaboration
Related research projects

Natural fibres as glass substitute
During the last decade, natural fibre reinforced polymeric composites which substitute glass reinforcement, have witnessed considerable growth. This is attributed to their unique properties. These materials have the potential advantages of weight-saving (light material), lower raw material price from natural origin, and 'thermal recycling' or the ecological advantages of using resources which are renewable.

The most important natural fibres used in composite materials are flax, hemp, jute, kenaf and sisal, due to their properties, easy availability and good performance to price ratio. Flax, hemp, jute and kenaf are bast fibres with more or less similar morphologies and can have similar functions in the composite.

These fibres are composed mainly of cellulose and some lignin and are sometimes called ligno-cellulosic fibres. As a result, many non-structural components for the automotive and other sectors are now made from natural fibre composite materials. These materials are largely based on polypropylene, polyester and polyamide matrices incorporating natural fibres, such as flax, hemp, jute and kenaf. However, the current applications of natural fibre reinforced composites are somewhat limited to non-structural automotive components, partly because of the low impact properties, poor moisture resistance and difficulties to reach good surface quality.

A research project of the CSIR aims to:

  1. improve impact, tensile and bending strength of flax and kenaf fibres reinforced composites from polypropylene and polyester matrices.
  2. improve the fatigue/fracture performance by control on crack resulting from hydrophilicity and better compatibilisation.
  3. develop computer-driven theoretical models to predict mechanical properties of natural fibre reinforced composites by utilising finite element analysis. The models will be required to incorporate into the analysis of real-life problems through component modelling to predict the failure mechanism to aid computer aided designs.

Future industries
Nationally, the automotive and aerospace sectors have been identified as future industries for economic growth. The South African automobile industry is starting to become a significant global player with exports surging in recent years. The Departement of Trade and Industry (the dti) has taken several measures to support the automotive sector, in particular through the implementation of the Motor Industry Development Programme (MIDP). The Automobile Industry Development Centre (AIDC) is also an example of a partnership between government, the CSIR and industry established to improve international competitiveness of the sector.

The aerospace sector is equally receiving much-needed attention from the government, coordinated through the Aerospace Industry Strategic Initiative (AISI). Leading aircraft manufacturers have recently shown considerable interest in sourcing components from South Africa.

Collaboration
The Fibres and Textiles Competence Area of the CSIR is already engaged in several projects in the field of natural fibre composites. The area has entered into strategic partnership with Bay Zoltan Institute of Polymer Science, Hungary; Nonwoven Development Centre of University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Institute of Natural Fibres, Poland, and Composite Research Group of M.G. University, Kerala, India. These initiatives are, in part, co-funded through National Research Foundation for providing training and bilateral exchange visit of scientists and students from both sides.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of Witwatersrand (WITS) are engaged in relevant research programmes and will provide support to the AMTS funded project for some testing and characterisation of the prototype and R&D expertise in the field of composite modelling. Both universities will recruit post-graduate students who will form a part of R&D manpower and human capital development through skill transfer and training. The membership of the nonwoven and composite manufacturing industries will help in testing the prototype and industry-oriented transfer of technology at the concluding phase of the proposed research activities. Other educational institutions, such as Tswane University of Technology (TUT), University of Kwazulu-Natal (UKZN) and the Durban University of Technology (DUT) will play consultative roles.

Related research projects
CSIR Parliamentary Grant and AMTS-funded projects on natural fibre composites

Publications

Primary Contact
Dr Rajesh Anandjiwala
CSIR
ranandi@csir.co.za

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