Manitoba a biocomposites world leader?

Composites Innovation Centre official says researchers close to finding way to create super-strong composites from flax and hemp fibres

Manitoba researchers believe they are on the brink of game-changing breakthrough that could thrust the province — and its farmers — into the forefront of the multibillion-dollar composites materials industry.

“Manitoba has a real opportunity to be a global biomaterial centre,” said Simon Potter, sector manager for product innovations at the Composites Innovation Centre (CIC) in Winnipeg.

“No one has ever done this for the composites industry before. It’s really going to give us the leap ahead of the global competition in the production of biocomposite materials.”

This is actually two interrelated projects underway at the composites centre — one involves a new way of bonding hemp and flax fibres to produce a super-strong biocomposite material and the other would use such material to make structural components for a soon-to-be-launched electric vehicle. Potter outlined the research at the recent Manitoba Rural Adaptation Council (MRAC) annual general meeting.

Biocomposites are already used in the auto industry for things such as interior panels and dashboards. But they aren’t used for exteriors because they are not strong enough. In theory, natural fibres have similar properties to fibreglass, but not enough is known about their chemistry and structure in order to understand what bonds them together best, Potter said.

But CIC researchers believe they are close to figuring that out, he said. They have used a syncrotron, which generates extremely brilliant light, in order to view the microstructure of the fibres.

“The fancy way of putting this is we’re trying to develop 3D maps of the chemistry of the surface of flax and hemp fibres,” said Potter.

This will allow the design of polymers, glues and resins that best stick to these types of fibres.

“If we can do that, we can start to overcome some of the weakness and problems we’re having with the materials,” he said.

“What we actually want to move towards is the capability to rationally design materials based on the chemistry of the fibres.”

Researchers have produced a series of composite materials of different strength properties and some are  “extremely promising,” said Potter, adding final results are expected to be released in June.

The work is being funded by MRAC, as is a project aimed at finding uses for biocomposites using hemp fibre. The CIC is working with a Canadian business consortium, Project Eve, to develop biocomposite components for Kestrel, a fully electric vehicle built by Calgary-based Motive Industries and expected to go on sale later this year.

The lightweight, four-passenger vehicle would have its left- and right-side panels and roof sheet made from hemp composites. Another Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada-funded project has seen the completion of fenders and the car hood, which is on display at the CIC.

The project is a leap forward for biocomposite materials, Potter said.

“We’re actually tackling the structural components of the vehicle and the exterior of the vehicle itself,” he said.

Biofibre is attracting considerable attention for automobile manufacturers, he added. Potter and other composite centre officials recently returned from Detroit where officials with Hyundai and Ford have told them they are “very keen” on  CIC’s innovation with biofibre car components and are considering undertaking research themselves. Cars made from biocomposite materials are more fuel efficient because they’re lighter, and are impact resistant because they have a “bounce back” quality unlike steel, said Potter.

Big automotive makers are looking to Manitoba right now “because we are the only credible source of these materials that they’ve actually ever found to date,” he said.

“There’s a colossal opportunity here for us,” he said.

“If we can start to get these materials up to the specifications of what the automotive industry needs, then it’s a fairly small step from there to what the aerospace industry needs and medical device industry.”

Annual demand for composite materials is about $500 billion and it’s projected that 20 to 30 per cent of that market could be taken up by biocomposite materials, Potter said.

MRAC funding for the two CIC projects includes $103,000 for the fibre investigation research and another $234,815 for the development of the components for the Kestrel EV platform.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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