3. June 2013 Daniel Kruse

In recent years there has been much interest in developing natural fibre reinforced polymers for a sustainable substitution of synthetic materials and also to develop markets for the non-food crop industry sector. The major impediment to growth facing the European natural fibre sector is the high processing costs needed to produce the fibres themselves. While natural fibres can be used for a wide variety of applications, other fibres are considerably more cost-effective. The growth in the agro-materials / energy crop sector is causing competition for land with food production and this is driving up the costs of both food and non-food crop products. There is an urgent need for more sympathetic integration of food and non-food production; this can be partially achieved through improved process efficiency and productivity. Natural fibre crops cannot be easily separated into fibres of consistent quality. Therefore, to commercially exploit past research investment on the world market and for Europe to reap the sustainability benefits that will result from expansion of the non-food crop sector, new research was required to reduce processing costs and to improve fibre quality, consistency, and efficiency.
The fibre composites industry is running into difficulties of supply at the moment. The worldwide shortage of carbon fibre has been well documented and is a result of a number of factors, including increased demand from China and India. The shortage is driving up the price of fibres, which is hitting manufacturing industries, already under pressure from the emerging world economies. As a result, a project to investigate and encourage the use of natural fibres in composites was extremely timely. Research and development into the application of natural fibres in composites is fragmented, meaning that each fibre research group is attempting individually to address the problem. However, the R&D issues are more fundamental and in the “pre-competitive domain”.
Typical generic technical problems are fibre-polymer bonding, fibre treatment, thermal behaviour, production problems, etc… Sequential and fragmented R&D has inevitably led to inefficient allocation of limited funds and duplicated R&D work. To solve the problems facing the natural fibre sector, input is needed from agro-science, biochemistry, polymer science, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, production engineering, product design, marketing and management. Thus, a collaborative European wide approach was needed to make a step change in the industrial production of natural fibres. In order for European industry to survive against competition from low-wage economies, it has to innovate and become more knowledge-based.
Background of the FP7 EU Project “Ultrafibre” (www.ultrafibre.org)
A 14-strong European consortium secured €1,742,245.00 of EU funding for production of high quality natural fibres for the SME natural fibre sector. The research was part funded by the European Commission under its FP7 (Framework 7) programme.
These companies and the EU committed a total of €2,228,311 to the project. For details of the consortium members involved in the project please refer to the Partners’ Page’.
As the SME-AGs and SMEs in the natural fibre producing and polymer sectors did not have the technical expertise or the financial resources to innovate themselves, an externally co-funded programme of research was needed. Through this programme, RTD performers, experts in the necessary fields, performed research on behalf of the SME-AG to provide a step change in the efficiency of the natural fibre composites supply chain. This provided exploitable results for the SME-AGs and through a targeted programme of dissemination, generated interest in the field, allowing SMEs further to innovate through the development of equipment for end-users. After completion of the project, the commercial viability of the UltraFibre process was demonstrated and detailed in the UltraFibre_Book.pdf.