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Low-Cost Composites in Vehicle Manufacture

Natural-Fiber-Reinforced Polymer
Composites in Automotive
James Holbery and Dan Houston

In the past decade, natural-fiber

composites with thermoplastic and
thermoset matrices have been embraced
by European car manufacturers and
suppliers for door panels, seat backs,
headliners, package trays, dashboards,
and interior parts. Natural fibers such
as kenaf, hemp, flax, jute, and sisal offer
such benefits as reductions in weight,
cost, and CO2, less reliance on foreign
oil sources, and recyclability. However,
several major technical considerations
must be addressed before the engineering, scientific, and commercial communities gain the confidence to enable
wide-scale acceptance, particularly in
exterior parts where a Class A surface
finish is required. Challenges include
the homogenization of the fibers properties and a full understanding of the degree
of polymerization and crystallization,
adhesion between the fiber and matrix,
moisture repellence, and flame-retardant
properties, to name but a few.

tive end-of-life requirements, European

Union (E.U.) and Asian countries have
released stringent guidelines. European
Union legislation implemented in 2006
has expedited recent natural-fiber-reinforced plastic automotive insertion; by
2006, 80% of a vehicle must be reused
or recycled and by 2015 it must be 85%.1
Japan requires 88% of a vehicle to be
recovered (which includes incineration
of some components) by 2005, rising to
95% by 2015. As a result, today most
automakers are evaluating the environmental impact of a vehicles entire
lifecycle, from raw materials to manufacturing to disposal.
At this time, glass-fiber-reinforced
plastics have proven to meet the structural
and durability demands of automobile
interior and exterior parts. Good mechanical properties and a well-developed,
installed manufacturing base have aided
in the insertion of fiberglass-reinforced
plastics within the automotive industry.

However, glass-reinforced plastics

exhibit shortcomings such as their relatively high fiber density (approximately
40% higher than natural fibers), difficulty
to machine, and poor recycling properties, not to mention the potential health
hazards posed by glass-fiber particulate.
An ecological evaluation, or eco-balance,
of natural-fiber mat as compared to
glass-fiber mat offers another perspective. The energy consumption to produce
a flax-fiber mat (9.55 MJ/kg), including
cultivation, harvesting, and fiber separation, amounts to approximately 17% of
the energy to produce a glass-fiber mat
(54.7 MJ/kg).2
Though natural-fiber-reinforced plastic parts offer many benefits as compared
to fiberglass, several major technical
considerations must be addressed before
the engineering, scientific, and commercial communities gain the confidence
to enable wide-scale acceptance, particularly in exterior parts where a Class

The utilization of lightweight, lowcost natural fibers offers the potential to
replace a large segment of the glass and
mineral fillers in numerous automotive
interior and exterior parts. In the past
decade, natural-fiber composites with
thermoplastic and thermoset matrices
have been embraced by European car
manufacturers and suppliers for door
panels, seat backs, headliners, package
trays, dashboards, and interior parts.
Natural fibers such as kenaf, hemp, flax,
jute, and sisal are providing automobile
part reinforcement due to such drivers
as reductions in weight, cost, and CO2,
less reliance on foreign oil sources,
recyclability, and the added benefit that
these fiber sources are green or ecofriendly. While the United States has not
issued regulations concerning automo80

Figure 1. (a) A natural fiber

mat processed into (b) a door
inner panel. Material specifics:
1,600 g/m2, 50% Kenaf/50%
polypropylene.Photo courtesy
of Best Fibers.

JOM November 2006

A surface finish is required. Challenges

include the homogenization of the fibers
properties, and a full understanding of
the degree of polymerization and crystallization, adhesion between the fiber and
matrix, moisture repellence, and flameretardant properties, to name but a few.
Technology for implementing naturalfiber composites into interior trim continues to be developed by Tier I and Tier
II automotive suppliers, typically in
partnership with producers of naturalfiber-based processing capabilities
for mat or other material forms. Compression molding, injection molding,
thermoforming, and structural reaction
injection molding are all processes
utilized to process natural-fiber
The automotive market sector is not
the only area that has experienced an
increase in natural-fiber usage. The
insertion of natural fibers in the industrial, building, and commercial market
sectors has experienced a growth rate of
13% compounded over the last 10 years
to an annual use of approximately 275
million kilograms.3 However, the use of
natural materials in automotive applications is not a new idea. In the 1930s and
1940s, Henry Ford strongly advocated
the use of natural materials, including
hemp, producing reinforced soy resin
composites in the manufacture of exterior
body panels. If it had not been for
the long material cure time, and the difficulty in molding, Fords idea for
alternative materials may have been

Recently, European companies have
taken the lead in natural-fiber composite
development, such as Dieffenbacher
(Germany), BASF (Germany), and
Rieter Automotive (Switzerland). Rieter
Automotive was awarded the top prize
at the 2005 JEC Composite Showcase
for its Acaba (banana) fiber continuousfiber processing development, where the
primary energy savings is estimated at
60% or more.5 In North America, Delphi
Interior Systems, Visteon Automotive,
Kafus Bio-Composites/Flexform Technology, and Cargill Ltd., to name but a
few, are actively involved in naturalfiber-composite development and
manufacture. With rapid advancements
in fully bio-based polymers that may be
processed with natural fibers, it is only
a matter of time before fully bio-based
composites are prevalent within the
automotive industry.
See the sidebar for details on naturalfiber selection and preparation.
The manufacture of natural-fiber
composites includes the use of either a
thermoset or thermoplastic polymer
binder system combined with the naturalfiber preform or mat. In automotive
applications, the most common system
used today is thermoplastic polypropylene, particularly for nonstructural components. Polypropylene is favored due
to its low density, excellent process-

Table I. Properties of Typical Thermoplastic Polymers Used in Natural Fiber

Composite Fabrication*


Density (g/cm )
Water Absorption
24 hours (%)
Tg (C)
10 to 23
Tm (C)
Heat Deflection
Temp (C)
Coefficient of
Thermal Expansion
(mm/mm/ C 105)
Tensile Strength
Elastic Modulus
Elongation (%)
Izod Impact
Strength (J/m)







Nylon 6

1.041.06 1.121.14

133 to 100

Max. 220

Nylon 6,6























* Selected data obtained from Reference 11; LDPE = low-density polyethylene; HDPE = high-density polyethylene; PP = polypropylene;
PS = polystyrene.

2006 November JOM

Table II. Properties of Typical Thermoset

Polymers for Natural Fiber Composites4

Polyester Vinylester
Resin Epoxy

Density (g/cc)
Modulus (GPa)
Strength (MPa)
Strength (MPa)
Elongation (%)
Cure Shrinkage
Water Absorption 0.10.3
(24 h @ 20C)
Izod Impact,
Notched (J/cm)













ability, mechanical properties, excellent

electrical properties, and good dimensional stability and impact strength.9
However, several synthetic thermoplastics are utilized including polyethylene,
polystyrene, and polyamides (nylon 6
and 6, 6). Common thermoplastic properties are listed in Table I.
The development of thermoplastic
natural-fiber composites is constrained
by two primary physical limits: the upper
temperature at which the fiber can be
processed and the significant difference
between the surface energy of the wood
and the polymer matrix. Process temperature is a limiting factor in naturalfiber applications. The generally perceived upper limit before fiber degradation occurs is on the order of 150C for
long processing durations, although
fibers may withstand short-term exposures to 220C. The result of prolonged
high-temperature exposure may be discoloration, volatile release, poor interfacial adhesion, or embrittlement of the
cellulose components. Therefore, it is
important to obtain as rapid a reaction
rate as possible during both surface
treatment and polymer processing to
limit exposure to cell wall components
preventing degradation. The development of low-process-temperature surface
treatments with high service capabilities
is viewed as an enabling technology for
the application of natural fibers in composite materials.
Because the interfacial adhesion
between the natural fiber and polymer
matrix determines the composite physical properties, it is usually necessary to
compatibilize or couple the blend.12

Compatibilization is any operation performed on the fiber and polymer that

increases the wetting within the blend.
Coupling is a process in which dissimilar polymers or fillers are made into an
alloy by use of external agents called
coupling agents.11 This can be achieved
by modifying the polymer matrix,
modifying the fiber, adding surfaceactive agents, and by high shear compounding. There are many types of
coupling agents including surface-active
agents and reactive chemistries, at times
referred to as functional modifiers. Surface-active agents are materials that
increase interfacial adhesion by acting
as a solid surfactant and that do not form
covalent bonds to the polymer matrix.9
Materials that form covalent bonds to
either the fiber or polymer matrix can be
reacted in-situ during processing. The
result of properly applying a compatibilizer or coupling agent to the composite
is an increase in physical properties and
environmental durability.4
The primary thermoset resins used
today in natural-fiber composites for
automotive applications are polyester,
vinylester, and epoxy resins. A comparison of typical thermoset properties
is provided in Table II.4 In natural fibers,
polar groups emanating from hydroxyl
groups, acetyl, and ether linkages (CO-C) are the main structural units and
the primary contributor to mechanical
properties; these also render cellulose
more compatible with polar, acidic, or
basic groups, as opposed to nonpolar
polymers. Polyester resins are widely
used, particularly the unsaturated type
capable of cure from a liquid to a solid
under a variety of conditions. A range of
polyesters is made from different glycols
(polyethylene glycol, ethylene glycol,
etc.), acids (malaeic, anhydride), and
monomers, all having various properties.
Orthophthalic polyester is the standard
economic resin commonly used, and it
yields highly rigid products with low heat
resistance. Isophthalic polyester is now
more common when moisture resistance
is needed.
Epoxy resins offer high performance
and resistance to environmental degradation. Typically, the monomer is produced
by reacting epichlorohydrin and bisphenol-A with hardeners such as amines or
anhydrides common in industry. Epoxies
have wide appeal in industry, although

in the automotive industry epoxies have

not gained broad use due to longer cure
schedules and high monomer cost.
Vinylester resins, a relatively new
addition in the family of thermosetting
resins, is usually produced by the reaction
between epoxy resin and an ethylenically unsaturated carboxylic acid, with
commonly used acids such as acrylic
and methacrylic acid. Vinylester resins
combine excellent chemical resistance,
good thermal and mechanical properties,
and the relative ease of processing and
rapid cure characteristics of polyester

resins. These have have better moisture

resistance than epoxies when cured at
room temperature. Vinylester resins
are similar in their molecular structure
to polyesters, but differ in that the reactive sites are positioned at the ends of
the molecular chains, allowing for the
chain to absorb energy. This results in
a tougher material when compared to
The primary drivers for the selection
of the appropriate process technology


Natural fibers can be grouped into bast (jute, hemp, kenaf, flax) produced from fibersheaves of dicoltylic plants or vessel sheaves of monocotylic plants, hard fibers from
leaf (sisal, pineapple), fibers derived from seed (cotton), and several others, each having
distinct mechanical and physical properties (Tables A and B). By far, the most plentiful
fiber in the world is wood from trees with an annual world production of 1.75109 tonnes
per year from well over 10,000 species. Cotton production, by comparison, is 18.5106
tonnes per year, while kenaf, flax, and hemp are 9.7105, 8.3105, and 2.1105 tonnes per
year, respectively
Although there are a number of plant fibers in nature, only a few are suited for
automotive application. Cellulose is the main component of natural fibers, although
the amount of pure cellulose, hemicellulose, pectin, lignin, and other extractives will
vary from fiber to fiber.10 For structural composites produced from natural fiber for
value-added applications, the most prominent fibers applied are flax, kenaf, and hemp,
primarily due to their fiber strength properties. In Table B, the tensile strength and elastic
modulus of the major natural and manmade fibers are listed. Calculating the specific
strength (tensile strength/density) and modulus (modulus of elasticity/density) of natural
fibers and comparing these to E-glass, it is apparent that E-glass is superior to all fibers in
specific strength, although flax fiber is very competitive (1,275 vs. 1,000, respectively).
However, the specific modulus of hemp (47) and kenaf (36) favorably compare to that of
E-glass (28). This data indicates that the bast fiber characteristics are comparable or in
some cases, exceed those of glass fibers.
Natural fibers can be harvested annually, or in certain cases, such as for kenaf, jute,
and hemp, can be planted and harvested two to three times annually. Kenaf, a plant of
African origin cultivated in the United States for a variety of uses including as an oil
spill absorbent, can grow to a height of four meters in four to five months and can yield
two or three harvests a year in tropical climates.7 Jute, which is grown in China, India,
and Bangladesh, can be grown in four to six months, although due to synthetic fiber
development has declined in yield in recent years. Agronomically, jute and kenaf have
advantages in regards to their resistance to climatic extremes, pests, and diseases. Hemp,
which grows as a yearly crop in most climates, can be historically traced back more than
10,000 years as a source of rope, cloth, and textiles. All of these plants have a high carbon
dioxide (CO2) assimilation rate and clean the air by consuming large quantities of CO2,
which is the main cause of the greenhouse effect. This is true also for sisal, from which
the same plant can produce fiber for up to 20 years, after which the plant begins to bloom
and then die.
Once the bast fiber is harvested, it must go through a process called retting to separate
the fiber from the rest of the plant. Essentially, this is a process to moisten or soak the
Table A. A List of Vegetable and Cellulose Fiber Classifications





Wood Fibers






JOM November 2006

for natural-fiber composite manufacture

include the final desired product form,
performance attributes, cost, and ease
of manufacturing. It is imperative to
fully understand the interrelationships
between materials, feed form of the raw
ingredients, process technology, and
the final part design to obtain a quality,
robust, and repeatable manufacturing
process. Several factors must be considered in selecting a process. One must
insure: that the fiber is distributed evenly
within the matrix, that there is adequate
compatibility between the hydrophobic

matrix and hydrophilic fibers, that fiber

attrition is minimized due to processing
to insure reinforcement, that the desired
fiber orientation effects will be imparted,
that thermal stability of the fiber is
maintained throughout the processing
step, and that the moisture inherent
within the fiber is at the desired level,
minimizing problems with swelling or
part distortion.
The control of moisture in the fiber and
the effect of moisture after molding are
primary considerations in natural-fiber
composites in automobiles. Three factors

fiber in order to soften and separate the fibers by partial rotting. This process can be
accomplished through several methods where moisture, microorganisms, or chemistry
break down the bark tissue that binds the fiber and nonfiber portions, making the fibers
easier to separate, during which time the retting process removes the hemicellulose and
lignin components. The following retting processes are the most prominent in use today,
and each has certain advantages.
Dew retting occurs when the stalks are left in the field so that rain, dew, or irrigation
is used to keep the stems moist. This may take up to five weeks and produces a coarse
fiber with a light brown color. Water retting occurs when stems are bundled and then
submerged in water so that bacteria break down the pectin. This takes seven to ten days
and produces a quality fiber. Warm-water retting occurs when bundles are soaked for
24 hours, after which the water is replaced. Heat is then applied to warm the batch for
the next two or three days. This results in a uniform, clean fiber. Green retting is an allmechanical process that separates the components and is used when the fiber is needed
for textiles, paper, or fiberboard products. Chemical retting occurs when chemicals are
used to dissolve the pectin, allowing the components to be separated. This shortens the
time to as little as 48 hours when the next process can then be instigated, and produces a
high-quality product.
Although the natural retting process is lengthy, the resulting fibers have many desirable
characteristics. The chemical retting process is quick but affects several properties,
including a loss in tenacity, color, and luster as compared to the bacterially retted fibers.
Natural reinforcing fibers can be modified by a variety of physical and chemical methods
to correct for fiber deficiencies; fibers can be treated to promote bonding and adhesion,
dimensional stability, and thermoplasticity. The physical methods for modifying natural
fibers such as calendaring, stretching, thermo-treatment, and weaving or integration
into yarns do not change the chemical composition of the fiber. Rather, these change
the structural and surface properties of the fiber and thereby influence the mechanical
bonding to polymers. Surface modification of natural fibers can be used to optimize
properties of the fiber-matrix interface.
Table B. Properties of Selected Natural and Manmade Fibers




Softwood Kraft Pulp
Aramid (Std.)
Carbon (Std. PAN-based)

2006 November JOM









determine the rate at which moisture is

removed from natural fibers: temperature, relative humidity, and air velocity.
It is quite costly to dry natural cellulose
fiber to less than 1 percent moisture, but
the -OH group in water is more reactive
than the -OH group available in the fiber
components, rendering hydrolysis to be
faster than substitution. The most favorable condition for surface reaction is
one that requires a trace of moisture and
where the rate of hydrolysis is relatively
slow. The ability to control and minimize
energy input during this process is one
opportunity foreseen with the processing of natural-fiber materials. Similarly,
the ability to eliminate water absorption
during service of natural-fiber-based
composite components is paramount in
industrial applications. For example, it
has been shown in sisal fiber/unsaturated
polyester composites that storage in
water will result in a reduction of up to
50% in flexural modulus.13
Compounding processes that blend
the natural fibers with a thermoplastic
matrix are gaining wide acceptance
due to the high degree of consistency
feasible in the pellet form. The purpose
of a compounding operation is to produce a pelletized feed stock that can be
processed further, similar to any other
thermoplastic processing technique,
such as injection molding, extrusion, or
thermoforming. There are several types
of compounding processes, including
extrusion, kneading, and high-shear
In extrusion, compounded material is
fed into the heated barrel of the extruder
and is heated to promote thermoplastic
flow. Types of extruders include twinscrew, which can be co-rotating and
counter rotating, and planetary extruders,
including single-screw. All essentially
achieve the same goals: material feed,
heat application, dispersive mixing,
distributive mixing, devolatilization, and
material extrusion through a die.
With kneading, continuous kneading
mixers consist of two long intermeshing
rotors in a heated barrel. Batch-style,
kneading-type compounding equipment
contains two low-speed high-torque
kneading rotors that control mixing time,
temperature, and energy consumption
and is combined with an extruder and
pelletizer to produce pellets.
High-shear mixers use robust mixers

Table III. Material Properties of

Glass-Fiber-Reinforced Unsaturated
Polyester and Natural-Fiber-Reinforced
Unsaturated Polyester Composites15

Flex Strength (MPa)
Flex Modulus (GPa)
Elongation at
Break (%)
Impact Strength
Density (g/cm3)

(30 wt.%)

(35 wt.%)







such as a thermo-kinetic batch-style

machine when fiber length is not a concern.
Injection molding is a versatile process
and is the most widely used processing
technique for making composite products, particularly where intricate shapes
are needed in cyclic, high-volume production. The benefits include excellent
dimensional tolerance and short cycle
times coupled with few post-processing
operations. According to BMW, it is
possible to manufacture bio-based composites that are as much as 40 percent
lighter than equivalent injection-molded
plastic parts.14 One of the challenges
posed by injection molding natural-fiber
composites is to produce pellets of a
consistent quality. This has been explored
by both North American and European
injection molding equipment suppliers
through a process called direct long-fiber
thermoplastic (D-LFT) molding. In this
continuous process, first developed for
glass fibers, the fibers are spooled and
fed into a heating zone, where the thermoplastic is integrated with the fiber
bundles. These bundles are then cut at a
desired length and fed continuously into
an injection molding hopper, and parts
are molded continuously. It is reasonable
to assume that the recent developments
in producing continuous natural-fiber
roving5 could be integrated on a large
scale into the D-LFT process. Several
companies are working this development
Thermoforming is mainly used to
produce natural-fiber-mat thermoplastic
composites. The process takes pre-cut
layers of fiber (or preformed mats that
could comprise random fibers or roving)
and polymer sheet that are inserted in a
heated mold, and consolidates the material as heat is transferred through conduc84

Table IV. Example of Interior and Exterior

Automotive Parts Produced from Natural
Vehicle Part

Material Used

Glove Box

Wood/cotton fibers
molded, flax/sisal
Door Panels
Flax/sisal with
thermoset resin
Seat Coverings
Leather/wool backing
Seat Surface/Backrest Coconut fiber/natural
Trunk Panel
Cotton fiber
Trunk Floor
Cotton with PP/PET
Cotton fiber
Floor Panels
Flax mat with

tion to melt the thermoplastic. The

thermoplastic flows to penetrate the fiber
component, with pressure applied during
the heating and cooling phases. After
reaching the melt temperature in a hot
press, the molten hybrid material is
consolidated into a composite in a cold
press, with very rapid processing times
possible via combined heating-cooling
presses in parallel (Figure 1).
Compression molding using thermoset polymer matrices is another major
platform used to manufacture large parts
for the automotive industry, producing
light, strong, and thin panels and structures. The primary advantage of this
process is low fiber attrition and process
speed. A comparison of compressionmolded unsaturated polyester compos-

ites reinforced with glass fiber and with

natural fibers (flax) is provided in Table
III. This indicates that the properties are
comparable with properties with similar
fiber loadings. Another method of compression molding is the sheet molding
compound (SMC) process which has
been used for glass composites for years.
Many variations of compression molding
have been developed that are suitable
for automotive application, and recent
developments to combine extrusion and
compression of thermoplastic composites, initially with glass fibers, are beginning to enter into the automotive industry. This process extrudes large thermoplastic fiber bundles, or pre-heated plugs,
into a compression mold in-situ, and then
the compression molds the part. However, high capitalization costs will preclude this process from large-scale
insertion into the Tier 1 supply chain in
the near future.
The foaming technique produces
foamed products that can be used in
upholsteries and in insulation applications. After blending the fiber, thermoplastic, and blowing agents, the material
is fed into a single screw extruder using
a special force-fed hopper. The extrudate
that leaves the extruder is passed through
a static diffusion-enhancing mixer to
insure the polymer matrix and blowing
agent have been completely integrated.
The temperature of this process insures
the blowing agent has been decomposed,
and then it is passed through a heat
exchanger; the extrudate then passes

Figure 2. Flax, hemp, sisal, wool, and other natural fibers are used to make 50 MercedesBenz E-Class components.16

JOM November 2006

Figure 3. On its (a) HarvesterWorks combines,

John Deere has replaced steel gull-wing doors
with (b) soy-resin body panels. Photos courtesy
of Richard Wool, University of Delaware, with

though a nozzle die to the final product.

Finally, thermoset polymer composite
manufacture via resin transfer and
vacuum-assisted resin transfer molding
has gained interest from the automotive
industry. The primary benefits of this
processing platform include compounding at low shear and temperatures with
minimal degradation of the cellulose
fiber. Higher fiber loadings to 70% are
possible, as well as good devolatilization.
However, these processes are meeting
resistance due to the high capital expenditure requirements.
Interest in bio-based materials, and
specifically, natural-fiber-reinforced
composites, coincides not only with
legislation that has been enacted in large
markets such as the European Union but
with the priority of many major automakers interest in global sustainability. The
definition of sustainability relates to
corporate responsibility, extending from
an automakers responsibility to its workers and customers and beyond. For
instance, DaimlerChryslers sustainability efforts have undertaken unprecedented technology development and
technology transfer initiatives involving
the use of bio-based materials in the
Philippines, South America, and South
Africa. DaimlerChrysler has gone one
2006 November JOM

step further, identifying bio-based materials as one of the two key parts of its
plan to create a global sustainability
network. The second key part is the use
of renewable energies to replace conventional fuels, which are pursuing a biobased automotive supply chain that
includes a network, from the farmer to
the automotive distributor.16 Global
automotive suppliers such as Honda
embarked on using natural-fiber materials, such as wood-fiber parts in the floor
area of the Pilot sport utility vehicle
(SUV), a decision that was driven by
engineering considerations as well as
corporate philosophy. Overall, the variety of bio-based automotive parts currently in production is astonishing;
DaimlerChrysler is the biggest proponent
with up to 50 components in its European
vehicles being produced from bio-based

materials (Figure 2).

Uses of natural-fiber reinforcement
have proven viable in a number of automotive parts. Flax, sisal, and hemp are
processed into door cladding, seatback
linings, and floor panels. Coconut fiber
is used to make seat bottoms, back
cushions, and head restraints, while
cotton is used to provide sound proofing,
and wood fiber is used in seatback cushions (Table IV). Acaba is used in underfloor body panels, and other manufacturers are implementing natural ingredients
into their cars as well. For example, the
BMW Group incorporates a considerable
amount of renewable raw materials into
its vehicles, including 10,000 tonnes of
natural fibers in 2004. At General Motors,
a kenaf and flax mixture has gone into
package trays and door panel inserts for
Saturn L300s and European-market Opel
Vectras, while wood fiber is being used
in seatbacks for the Cadillac DeVille and
in the cargo area floor of the GMC Envoy
and Chevrolet TrailBlazer. Ford mounts
Goodyear tires that are made with corn
on its fuel-sipping Fiestas in Europe.
Goodyear has found that its corn-infused
tires have lower rolling resistance than
traditional tires, so they provide better
fuel economy. The sliding door inserts
for the Ford Freestar are made with wood
fiber. Toyota has interest in using kenaf
to make Lexus package shelves, and has
incorporated it into the body structure
of Toyotas i-foot and i-unit concept
Currently, there is a great deal of global
research into the insertion of natural-fiber
composites, and automakers are producing prototypes that provide a hint into
the future of manufacturing. For example, the U.S. Agricultural Research
Service has been developing industrial

Figure 4. A front-end grill

opening reinforcement for the
Ford Montagetrger.17


Figure 5. The underbody of a DaimlerChrysler A-class, compression

molded flax-propopylene.18

and commercial uses for a wide variety

of agricultural products, including waste
items, and groups such as the Soybean
Checkoff and the National Corn Growers Association that focus on researching
and promoting new markets for members crops are supporting research
efforts into new applications for their
feed sources.16 In addition, Tier 1 suppliers are actively involved in producing
prototype parts: Visteon has developed
a system for making flax-based instrument panels; Composite Products has
developed a process to produce door
panels from flax; Findlay Industries,
which makes the cargo area floors for
the GM and Honda SUVs and the package shelves for Saturn and Opel, also
manufactures headliners for Mack
Trucks that are made with a hemp, flax,
kenaf, and sisal mixture; and soy-resin
body panels have been developed that
are currently used on John Deere tractors
(Figure 3).
As mentioned previously, many
experimental parts of complex geometries are currently either in the prototype
or production stages. Figures 4 and 5
illustrate the demanding applications that
can be met with natural-fiber composites. Figure 4 depicts the front end grill
reinforcement for a Ford Montagetrger
produced from a hemp-polypropylene
composite, and Figure 5 depicts the
underbody panel compression molded
from flax-polypropylene for an A-Class
DaimlerChrysler automobile.
In the last decade, natural-fiber composites have experienced rapid growth
in the European automotive market, and


this trend appears to be global in scale,

provided the cost and performance is
justified against competing technologies.
However, mass reduction, recyclability,
and performance requirements can be
met today by competing systems such
as injection-molded unreinforced thermoplastic. Natural-fiber composites will
continue to expand their role in automotive applications only if such technical
challenges as moisture stability, fiberpolymer interface compatibility, and
consistent, repeatable fiber sources are
available to supply automotive manufacturers.
Efforts underway by Tier I and II
automotive suppliers to explore hybrid
glassnatural-fiber systems, as well as
applications that exploit such capabilities as natural-fiber sound dampening
characteristics, could very well have
far-reaching effects. In addition, the current development underway of bio-based
resins such as polyhydroxyalkanoate
(PHA) biodegradable polyesters and
bio-based polyols could provide fully
bio-based composite options to future
automotive designers. In short, the development of the natural-fiber composite
market would make a positive impact
on farmers and small business owners
on a global scale, reduce U.S. reliance
on foreign oil, improve environmental
quality through the development of a
sustainable resource supply chain, and
achieve a better CO2 balance over the
vehicles lifetime with near-zero net
greenhouse gas emissions.
1. Directive 2000/53/EC of the European Parliament
and of the Council of 18 September 2000 on End-

of Life Vehicles, Official Journal of the European

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FL: CRC Press, 2005).
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Automotive Parts, Natural Fibers, Plastics and
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Plants (12 April 2005),
fueleconomy/articles/105341/article.html (downloaded
28 August 2006).
php?view=detail&position=3, downloaded 10 August
php?view=detail&position=1, downloaded 10 August
James Holbery is a senior scientist with the Energy
Science and Technology Department at Pacific
Northwest National Laboratory in Richland,
Washington. Dan Houston is a technical specialist
with the Manufacturing and Processing RIC
Department at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn,
For more information, contact James Holbery,
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Energy
Science and Technology Department, 509 Battelle
Blvd., Richland, WA 99352; e-mail james.holbery@

JOM November 2006