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Research shows that plant wastes from food production and forestry operations can be pressed and moulded into car parts, aircraft pieces and building materials that are lighter, less expensive and just as strong as fibreglass.
When Adrien Pilon gazes out over a field of flax, he sees more than just a farm crop blowing in the wind.
The NRC researcher sees a lighter future.
As the head of a team of scientists looking at potential uses of natural fibre, Pilon looks beyond the pastoral beauty of the scene and pictures instead a sustainable source of "eco-materials." He envisions a new generation of lightweight car panels and aircraft parts as well as eco-friendly foams, adhesives, sealants and coatings.
The project team is investigating natural fibre materials made from hemp and oil seed flax. Early testing has shown that the plant waste left over from food production (cellulose and lignins) can be pressed and moulded into car parts, jet aircraft pieces and building materials that are lighter, cheaper and just as strong as their fibreglass counterparts.
At the same time, these materials eat up less energy in the manufacturing process. And a lighter vehicle — be it a car or a plane — uses less fuel, which in turn is better for the environment.
"If we replace an average of just 3.5 kilograms of fibreglass with natural fibres in all cars produced in North America, we estimate the potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions at 0.5–1 million tonnes per year," says Pilon, who leads the efforts of Canada's National Bioproducts Program on this issue.
Eco-materials, by design, are also biodegradable or recyclable. So when a car reaches the end of its life, the parts can be ground up and recycled. Nothing need end up rusting away in a junk yard or eating up space in a landfill.
Canadian companies go for green
With a growing interest in reducing Canada's dependence on petroleum, the private sector is looking for ways to go green.
For example, Novik in St-Augustin-de-Desmaures, Quebec, approached NRC to help develop new products and processes for the construction trade. Novik specializes in polymer-based roofing materials and siding that mimics the look of slate and other kinds of stone. The company uses a petroleum-based polymer, but hopes to replace it soon with a green alternative created at NRC.
Francois Bouchard, Novik's Engineering Research and Design Manager, hopes to develop new products that will initially help the company boost sales in Europe, where markets are more driven by environmental considerations. In time, he believes the existing niche market for green products in North America will also grow, serving up new opportunities closer to home.
A boost for rural areas
Those opportunities aren't limited to existing companies in big centres, says Daniel Babineau, Managing Director of Lanaupôle Fibres. He believes that rural communities can be revitalized if eco-material processing plants are located close to the source of the raw materials.
To explore that possibility, his company has partnered with the National Bioproducts Program to create an experimental biofibre processing mill. NRC has commissioned five enzyme processing machines at a site in the Lanaudière Region, 30 minutes from Montréal.
The effort is transforming hemp straw into high quality fibres in sufficient quantities for NRC research needs and to evaluate their potential as eco-materials. Aviation giant Boeing is assessing a woven flax fabric against its fibreglass equivalent for use inside aircraft. Babineau says the project could significantly boost the regional economy — serving as an anchor for companies specializing in plant fibre applications, fibre producers and suppliers.
Meanwhile, in New Minas, Nova Scotia, NRC is helping BioVision Technology Inc. prove its proprietary technology for converting cellulose and lignin into biomaterials to replace petroleum products used in plastics and fibreglass. Biovision President Anne Franey says the company wants to provide a sustainable alternative that does not leave a deep carbon footprint.
Green by nature
Using waste material from flax mills and wood pulp from forestry operations, Canadian scientists are developing "eco-materials" as an alternative to traditional petroleum-based products for automotive, aerospace and construction companies. This work is being done under the National Bioproducts Program, which involves researchers from Natural Resources Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, several labs across NRC, and various industry and university partners.
Eco-materials could benefit both the environment and the economy. They will not only increase value from Canadian forests and agriculture — and reduce troubling waste disposal issues — but also help companies and individuals to reduce their ecological footprint.