Farmers in south Texas in the USA have just planted the raw material that will go into door panels and trunk liners of future cars.
Part of last year's flax crop from Canada's province of Saskatchewan makes up half of the mix in the reinforced substrate in General Motors Corp.'s 2000 Chevrolet Impala rear shelf trim panels.
Interest is expanding for biocomposites, a melding of plastics technology and agriculture that uses fibers from the field. And much of that interest is being generated by increasing legislation regarding car recyclability in Europe.
'There's a buzz about it,' said Rich Long, materials and process engineer for Findlay Industries of Troy, Michigan, USA. 'But it all comes down to whether the economics fall into line.'
In late May, the European Union announced that carmakers would have to pay the costs of recycling both existing cars and new cars from the 2001 model year under the end-of-life vehicles law. Manufacturers must pay 'all, or a significant part' of the costs of a free take-back and recycling scheme. Europe's car industry had hoped to benefit from a delay to the new law's imposition, saying it would be extremely costly.
Both raw material suppliers and molders put their biocomposite programs on display at the Automotive & Transportation Interiors Expo, held between May 16-18 in Detroit.
Findlay is using a polypropylene/kenaf blend manufactured by Kafus Bio-Composites of Dedham, Massachusetts, USA, as the reinforced substrate in the deck trays of GM's Saturn models. Other processors are using kenaf in Ford door panels and commercial trucks.
Cambridge Industries Inc. of Madison Heights, Michigan, first used Cargill Ltd.'s Durafibre, a 50-50 blend of polypropylene (PP) and flax straw, for this year's Chevrolet Impala, said General Manager Dick van Manen.
Kafus first explored kenaf as a raw material for paper production, said David Saltzman, chief marketing officer. It is a partner in a $205 million paper mill that will use the bark from the bamboo-like plant.
But as word came from Europe on the demand to increase the recyclability of cars, the company began looking at other potential end users for the crop, he said.
'We realized it was an ideal method for composites,' Saltzman said. 'Glass fiber as a reinforcement is difficult to recycle.'
The company's 50-50 kenaf and PP blend produces a reinforced mat that is 30 percent lighter than a glass-PP mix, he said. In addition, said David Agneta, president of Kafus Bio-Composites, the company has more control over the final cost of its product. It contracts with farmers each year in the cotton-growing region in Texas, setting a pre-determined price and number of acres.
'We can stabilize our agricultural production,' Agneta said. 'It has to be cost competitive. It has to be a superior product or no one is going to buy it.'
Kafus's kenaf blend also is going into the packaging and furniture industries, he said.
Cargill Ltd., the Winnipeg, Manitoba-based subsidiary of Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc., uses the straw left over after farmers harvest flax. The harvest chops off just the top of the plant for its oil, leaving the stem behind. Most of that flax straw is just wasted, burned off or left to rot in the field.