High fibre diet
The use of natural fibres in plastic components is being investigated by a growing number of companies and research groups in automotive and other markets. The event that has recently pushed this trend into prominence is BMW’s launch of the i3 electric car, with its “visible nature” interior design that displays kenaf fibres in polypropylene trim, where normally such reinforcing fibres are hidden from sight.
Everyone expected attention to focus on the BMWi3’s innovative use of carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP), but there has been just as much talk about its grey fibre doors and dashboard, perhaps because this is such a radical departure from the accepted approach to materials used in car interiors. In our January issue, we reported on BMW designer Hilke Schaer’s comments about BMW’s “Next Premium” strategy for finding a premium way to sustainability.
She said: “It doesn’t look like the old image of sustainability. That was a risk and a chance, because we didn’t know how our customers would accept that. We just dared to show it and set it as a new way.” So far, the response has been mostly positive, including in the plastics industry.
In this issue, we look in detail at the work Ford and its partners have done with natural fibres in a glovebox application (pages 14-15). This project, supported by German government funding, has investigated a wide range of fibres that may find a market in automotive parts: cellulose, hemp, sisal, kenaf, flax and wheat straw.
Is this concern with natural fibres a passing fad? Ford is investigating natural fibres quite thoroughly, but the company acknowledges their technical limitations. A growing reliance on natural fibres also throws up issues of supply, such as guaranteeing the volumes necessary for series production over a number of years.
But in the short to medium-term, we can expect to see more car makers using natural fibres as a means for achieving their sustainability goals. And if natural fibres do find a permanent place in car parts, maybe the legacy of the BMWi3 won’t be CFRP, maybe it will be natural fibre.
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