FORBIOPLAST – Drawing on forest resources to aid sustainable manufacturing
The timber industry currently wastes huge amounts of precious wood by-products like chips, shavings and sawdust that could otherwise be put to use. European researchers, with the support of EU funding, are finding new ways to ensure every little bit counts.
In order to alleviate the depletion of the world's natural resources, it is crucial to find ways of making better use of wood, without chopping down more trees. FORBIOPLAST (Forest Resource Sustainability through Bio-Based-Composite Development), a research consortium receiving 4,317,000 € in EU funding over four years, may offer the solution.
They are examining how to use wood byproducts as raw materials to make composite foams.
There are many potential applications for wood composites. Coordinated by the University of Pisa, the 16 FORBIOPLAST partners are developing innovative chemical and biological processes to help change the way wood fibres interact with polymers.
Carmaker FIAT, one of the FORBIOPLAST partners, is looking at using wood fibres as natural fillers to replace synthetic and glass fibres in vehicle parts like seats, dashboards, and door panels.
Europe's packaging sector, already under pressure to reduce its use of plastics, is looking for substitutes that are strong, flexible and adaptable.
Here, the research uses wood fibres as components in biodegradable composite materials. FORBIOPLAST is working on replacements for cardboard or plastic boxes that carry items as varied as cosmetics, detergents, fish, or eggs. The project is also looking at applications for the farming sector, like biodegradable plant pots, tomato yarn and fertilisers.
There are multiple challenges for the researchers. For example, while the auto-motive industry demands solid, durable products, the packaging sector wants non-toxic, biodegradable materials that can be composted or directly in soil degradation. The experiments involve different source material, with some of the applications using olive oil waste water. FORBIOPLAST aims to examine these challenges and turn its research into eco-friendly commercial applications, ensuring that we can make the most of our forestry resources, without depleting them.
It may be years before any wood composite shampoo bottles or car seats are widely available, but researchers are working to bring them to market. Wood remains a prized material, for its strength, versatility and beauty.
But market prospects for wood composites have spurred European researchers into finding new ways to salvage what would otherwise be considered wood waste. And there are wood by-products readily available.
The global timber industry annually discards hundreds of millions of tonnes of bark, chips, sawdust, and black liquor from the making of wood pulp. Some of these have already found their way into engineered wood products bonded together with resins, resulting in a booming market.
The more efficient and sustainable exploitation of renewable natural resources such as forestry residues and waste, will allow the European economy to reduce its strong dependency on fossil resources for the production of valueadded products. Furthermore, new markets for bio-based products have the potential to generate new jobs and economic growth.