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Biocomposite Materials for Building and Industrial Application

Satya Panigrahi, Department of Agricultural and Bioresource Engineering, University of Saskatchewan, 57 Campus Drive, S7N5A9, Saskatoon, SK S7N5A9, Canada

Agriculture is a major economy sector in Western Canada. Non-food agricultural fiber processing is an important sector in diversified agricultural industry. Oilseed flax, hemp and wheat are the crops grown and used as agricultural fibers in Saskatchewan. Especially oilseed flax and hemp crops can produce the strong bast fiber for commercial and industrial use. There are about 16,000 oilseed flax producers and flax crop had 785,000 hectares harvested area in 2006 (http://www.saskflax.com/). The potential salvageable oilseed flax straw on the Prairies is 500,000 to 1,000,000 tons annually. With flax fiber content of the straw ranging from 8% to 40%, this means that the potential pure fiber production from the oilseed flax presently grown on the Prairies would be between 100,000 and 250,000 tons annually. Flax and hemp bast fibers are the useful, strong and flexible raw material, because they are environmentally renewable, reusable and recyclable resource. Manufacturers use the bast fiber in plastic composites, insulation and a substitute for traditional wood products and synthetic fibers. Nowadays, a wide range of agricultural fiber products are already appearing on the market. Some of the products such as textile, paper pulp, biocomposite, counter tops, decks materials, pallets, construction materials, automobile parts and liners, rope, and insulation materials are made from flax and hemp fibers. However, there is still a problem in supplying consistent pure flax and hemp fiber at this moment. This hinders the growth of the biocomposite industries.

Development of biocomposite from hemp and flax fiber is still ongoing in the research sector. Different production processes of the biocomposite are being investigated. The biocomposite materials in extrusion, injection, compression and rotation molding grade are being investigated and developed to comply with the existing industrial process. Moreover, the utilization of natural fiber as supplement reinforcement for vacuum resin transfer molding (VRTM) is being introduced to the existing production in the fiberglass reinforced plastic industries. New techniques are being developed to manufacture the new products such as bioshingle, composite board and eco-block for the construction industries in Saskatchewan. The commercial egg trays is also manufactured from recycled materials including flax straw as fiber reinforcement in the processing

There is an increasing trend to make completely new types of composite materials used for building and industries by combining different resources. One of the biggest new areas of research in this field is combining natural fiber/straw with polymers. Fiber plants such as flax and hemp are increasingly used in manufacturing processes because consumers and businesses become more conscious of the environment and recognize the benefits of using renewable resources like natural fiber/straws. Canada produces the majority of flaxseed and hemp in the world. As such, a huge amount of flax and hemp straw is left in the growers' fields without suitable utilization. In our research, flax and hemp resource are used to make different products for construction, plastic, and automobile industry. Utilizing the developed technology to incorporate fiber/straw/shives into industry materials by different methods, some viable products are manufactured. The developed products include Eco-bricks, structural panel boards, bioshingles and green roof, oriented strand board used for new building system in all weather conditions (-40 to 40 ºC); and bio-based polymer, FlasticTM, HempsticTM and fibre reinforced polymer or recycled plastic composites used for plastics industries. The development of renewable, partially and completely biodegradable, environmentally friendly polymer and fiber-reinforced biocomposites from flax, hemp and other agricultural biomass and residues will reduce the Canadian dependence upon petroleum and other non-renewable resources. These products can provide a better or comparable strength than traditional materials. On the industrial side, a lot of manufacturing companies are looking at synthetic and natural resource for their own applications. The present lower cost and huge amount of flax and hemp resource are at an advantage to encourage construction, plastic and other industry manufacturers to shift their paradigm from ‘tried and true' glass fiber and wood filler ingredients to renewable sustainable materials. Providing such sustainable materials will also reduce green house gas emission released from burning of plant straw or plastic land filling, and help achieve wild life preservation and the goal of eco-balance in Canada. It will create great opportunities for locally-based processing industries and create new local jobs, thus bring numerous economic benefits to society.

In Canada, the opportunity of bio-product industry is growing rapidly. The growth of biocomposite industry in natural fiber partly depends on the effective management in straw, retting and decortications from growers and producers. The researchers are doing their part to develop the new products, processes and technologies in biocomposite. However, the government is a major role to provide the funding to researchers, and to promote this innovative industry.