The CSIR has significantly invested in fibres and biocomposite research and infrastructure at its Port Elizabeth site. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has invested approximately R10.8 million in new equipment to complement this research. This investment in infrastructure and the creation of the Biocomposites Centre of Competence will help unlock the significant potential of a fully developed biocomposites industry in South Africa.
Most research at the CSIR’s facilities in Port Elizabeth focuses on nonwoven products and the more traditional fibre processing route. Fibre modification, where chemicals and techniques are applied to fibres to change their properties, also remains a strong focus with continued support given to industry on fibres and textiles.
The 4 300 m² facility includes extensive infrastructure for processing and analysing natural fibres and natural fibre-based composites along the whole value chain, from fibre extraction and processing, to intermediate products such as nonwovens, final natural-fibre composite products and components. Essentially, it is a complete pilot production line.
The processes involved in the pilot production line include fibre blending and opening, carding and cross-lapping for web formation, needle punching, hydro entanglement, foam impregnation, hot air bonding, the curing and drying process, as well as hot calendaring and winding.
The pilot plant facility is supplemented by a comprehensive range of testing instruments to characterise nonwoven materials for a variety of properties. These instruments can test for air and water permeability, acoustic and thermal conductivity, filtration efficiency, dynamic contact angle, surface tension, pore size and distribution, water vapour permeability, universal tensile testing with attachments for pull-out force and puncture resistance measurement, hydraulic transmissivity and abrasion and peeling. In addition, digital image processing and microscopy analysis are also done.
Composites are prepared using natural fibres such as flax, hemp, kenaf and agave, including thermoplastic and thermoset resins, as well as biopolymers such as soy protein, polylactic acid and polyfurfuryl alcohol. The mechanical, thermal, thermo-mechanical and fire retardancy properties of fibre-reinforced composites are optimised for application in the automotive and aerospace industries.
Developing new biopolymers and resins is an important activity in the development of biocomposites, therefore, the CSIR’s fully integrated composite processing facility includes a 2 700 kN compression moulding hydraulic press, vacuum-assisted resin transfer moulding, twin screw extruder and an injection moulding machine.
The composites laboratory houses state-of-the-art equipment for measuring the mechanical and thermal properties of composites. A weathering chamber has recently been installed to study the influence of temperature, humidity and sunlight on composite materials, which is crucial for components that are used in outdoor environments.
The procurement and commissioning of the equipment under the DST infrastructure grant has been completed. Additional equipment that includes a pulveriser, ultra centrifugal mill and super-mass colloider are being procured to start new projects on utilising post-harvest agriculture waste and plant residues. This will further advance the scope of the research in developing diversified bio-based and allied products.
Apart from research and development, this centre is also frequented by industry seeking assistance with problem-solving, quality control and guidance on maintaining ecological standards. In addition, the centre conducts hands-on training sessions for university students and industry.