Transportation industry weaves treasure from trash

- Ottawa, Ontario

Replacing glass with eco-friendly plant waste

Passengers travelling on sleek, high-speed trains around the world may soon find new models lighter and faster due to a surprising new fabric reinforcing their components: flax fibres. Used around the globe in clothing, table linens and stationery, these fibres are three times as strong as cotton and just as strong as—but considerably lighter than—glass, a prominent component in parts used in ground transportation vehicles.

In North America, the blue-flowering flax plant is traditionally harvested for its seeds, after which the stalks become straw and are typically discarded as agricultural waste. But new research is exploring inventive ways to use the leftover straw fibres as an eco-friendly replacement for glass fibres in vehicle doors, hoods and interior components. By making these parts lighter, they will in turn become cheaper to produce and, ideally, cheaper to buy. The challenge remains in extracting, treating and adapting these flax fibres for use in the composites industry.

In response, the National Research Council's (NRC) Industrial Biomaterials program, whose mandate is to develop technology that converts agricultural waste into marketable products, is working closely with Canadian industry leaders to find solutions for the mass production of biocomposites like these in the marketplace.

Greening the world

Vehicle parts made from lightweight materials generate a number of attractive advantages. "In transportation, weight is a very important factor because vehicles with lighter components use less fuel and release less CO2 into the atmosphere," says NRC’s Johanne Denault, Research Officer, Industrial Biomaterials. "Finding ways to be greener and protect the environment can also lead to cost savings."

Denault points out that the United States, Europe and other parts of the world have recently established legislation that mandates CO2 reduction and energy conservation, compelling companies who bid for contracts there to prove that they are making "green" efforts to comply with their environmental regulations. With Canada’s rich supply of agricultural waste, as well as the capacity to transform it into advanced biomaterials, Canadian industries are well-positioned to capture their share of the $500-billion global composites market.

Canadian industry partners, which include Bombardier Transportation, Bombardier Recreational Products, Composites BHS, Sogel, Regitex, FDC Composites and Texel, are also working closely with NRC to create a Canadian supply chain that will provide a sustainable supply of biocomposites with consistent quality and at competitive prices.

Driving ahead with research

After being tested at NRC's Boucherville industrial materials testing labs for performance in areas such as toxicity, flammability, compatibility with polymer resins and resistance to humidity, the next step was to integrate the fibres into production parts based on the specific requirements of industry partners. Christine Hainse, Product Development Director at Texel, which manufactures non-woven materials for technical use, points out that "working with natural fibres in biocomposites is new territory for us. NRC’s expertise and leadership have been invaluable."

Martin Bigras, Senior Composite Engineer at Bombardier Transportation, views this particular project as a source of pride. According to Bigras, "we are always looking for ways to help the environment by becoming greener. Using biocomposites helps us not only reuse agricultural waste, but also do our part for R&D in Canada."

The partners are now investigating the extent to which flax fibres in biocomposites will absorb sound—an exciting possibility that could increase passengers’ comfort levels. And with strong teamwork and promising progress, vital collaboration like this is certain to plant the seeds for many eco-friendly solutions to come.

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