Flax, hemp, kenaf... Fibre crops are used to make objects as varied as clothes, particle board and cosmetics. Research collaboration between Europe and China could help to make them even more attractive as a source of bio-based materials for industrial products. An EU-funded project has mapped out a path.
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Think fibre crop, think textile as well as building materials, biopolymers, pharmaceuticals and paper, to name but a few examples. Cotton, sisal, flax et al are grown around the world for a wide variety of purposes, and the demand is expected to rise sharply in the coming decades.
This development is notably driven by environmental concerns and legislation, which have aroused growing interest in biodegradable and recyclable materials, say the partners involved in FIBRA. This project, which ended in November 2015, focused on fibre crop research in Europe and China, and the development of a long-term vision for joint research activities. It involved partners from both territories.
Fibre crops were identified as one of several priority areas for scientific cooperation between China and the EU, explains Efthymia Alexopoulou of the Centre for Renewable Energy Sources and Saving Foundation in Pikermi, Greece, who coordinated the FIBRA project. They are a shared interest in both parts of the world, which have built up complementary expertise in this area, she notes.
We have conducted different kinds of research, Alexopoulou says. In China, a lot of progress has been made on agronomy and plant breeding. In Europe, there have been advances with regard to processing and utilisation. We created the FIBRA network in order to learn from each other.
Take kenaf, a plant with uses similar to those of industrial hemp, for instance. In Europe, we need better varieties, she notes. The collaboration in FIBRA enabled her to test two new varieties, for which she observed yields that exceeded those of conventional controls by 30 %.
The Chinese partners, in turn, were interested in aspects such as harvesting and processing for the production of high-value materials, Alexopoulou adds. A number of technical visits were organised.
FIBRA was one of several promising examples of joint projects in the field, the partners observe. In addition to traditional uses of fibre crops, it looked into more recent and innovative applications. Particular attention was devoted to biorefinery concepts, notably as a way to put fibre crop residues to good use.
Harvesting the benefits
The consortiums outline of collaborative follow-on research to be conducted by the two territories is one of the main outcomes of the project. New concepts based on novel sources of feedstock would be better developed through a cooperation between EU and China, the researchers note. In addition to work along the fibre crop value chain, research should address topics such as standardisation, intellectual protection and regulatory aspects, they suggest.
The projects vision document also recaps on possibilities and constraints arising from the relevant rules on trade and export. In addition, it identifies support mechanisms that could help consortia to overcome the difficulties of conducting work across territories with very different systems, find partners for long-term collaborations and transform their advances into innovative products and solutions.