Cooking up natural plastics
It’s time for a bit of cooking at a research Institute in Brindisi, Southern Italy. The recipe is simple: a splashing of natural textiles, a good dose of partially-bio resin and a pinch of bio-additives and enzymes. Stir well and place your mixture in an oven for a few hours at 60 degrees Celcius.
“It is made out of linen fabrics and natural resins. It is a sustainable, completely organically derived product,” says Andrea Ferrari, coordinator at the engineering firm D’Appolonia.
It is, in fact, a new composite structure born out of renewable materials.
And it is these scientists’ dream that this new ecomaterial will soon replace plastic composites.
“We are convinced that very soon we will be able to replace fossil-derived materials with exclusively natural materials. We’re talking about materials born out of by-products like cotton, linen or hemp, or resins made with sugar cane or other crops which are not aimed at the food market,” says Andrea Ferrari.
Before it hits the market, the new ecomaterial’s mechanical performances are fully tested and compared with those of carbon and other classic composites.
Tests include fracture toughness, elasticity and plasticity.
“As far as we can see, the natural composite has inferior mechanical properties compared to classic composites. For instance, it is less rigid and shows less mechanical strength than carbon composite,” says Andrea Salomi, a materials engineer at Cetma research centre.
“But these mechanical characteristics don’t mean that the natural composite will be more difficult to use than carbon composites. It depends on the type of final product that we want to develop with it,” he adds.
Researchers are not short of ideas. Various concepts are currently under study. The new biocomposite could be used to equip cars, to build construction panels or to assemble furniture or musical instruments.
All of this at a competitive price manufacturers hope:
“Research is ongoing to increase the quality of the natural composite. In a year’s time, we will have a top quality product. And it shouldn’t be that expensive. The natural composite will cost between 20 and 25 percent more than current plastic composites. That would mean a price increase of just 30 of 40 cents per kilo for natural composites,” says composite manufacturer Guy Simmonds.
It’s hoped this new biocomposite could become a market reality in the next three to four years.