Market developments for bio-based composites are favourable: according to calculations by the nova Institute, the market share of bio-based composites in Europe will nearly double over the coming 10 years. In this interview Dr. Asta Partanen of the nova Institute explains the biggest untapped potentials and why more and more companies are investing in the research and development of bio-based product solutions.
Dr. Partanen, what are bio-based composites?
Under the term bio-based composites we summarise all composites that are made entirely or largely of bio mass. Natural and wood fibres are combined with petrochemical or bio-based polymers to develop bio-based composites suitable for use in mechanical processes as well as in lightweight structures. Since sustainability aspects are growing increasingly important in society, politics and business bio-based plastics are now also increasingly taken into consideration in a wide variety of industries.
The positive properties of bio-based composites include their special looks, their touch and their low weight. However, the principal motivation for the rising interest in bio-based plastics is their sustainable image based on their extremely small carbon footprint.
Where are bio-based composites being used and how will the market for bio-based composites develop?
We are aware of three principal applications for bio-based composites. They are relatively widespread in the construction sector, preferably used as a material for terrace decking, fences and also façades. In the automotive sector bio-based composites are primarily used for saving weight in car interiors. In shopfitting and furniture-making they score points with their appealing touch as well as attractive design. Quite a number of consumer goods today already consist of bio-based composites and are manufactured by injection moulding or 3D printing.
Overall, I see market developments for bio-based composites very favourably. According to calculations by the nova Institute, the market share of bio-based composites in Europe will rise from an annual volume of over 400,000 t in 2017 to more than 800,000 t by 2027.
What are the biggest drivers for these developments?
Customers and companies are asking ever more often for products with a low environmental impact, reduced carbon footprint and the lowest percentage possible of oil-based plastics. This development unavoidably entails a higher use of wood and natural-fibre based materials and especially of bio-based polymers.
The construction and automotive industries are the biggest sales markets. In which segments do you see further potential?
The construction industry where bio-based composites and/or wood and natural fibres are used for making windows, doors, insulation materials, acoustics components and also terrace decking is the biggest sales market. Use in the automotive industry is both important and well-established with a multitude of bio-based moulded parts. Last not least, bio-based composites are used for producing sports gear including tennis rackets, snowboards and bicycles.
However, I see the highest growth potential for traded bio-based composites in granulates for manufacturing furniture, toys and other consumer goods made by injection moulding or 3D printing. Natural-fibre based composites also offer a highly attractive alternative in the packaging sector. So far, the packaging industry has primarily focused on bio-based polymers as a replacement for conventional plastics but composites are now gaining ground here.
Why do more and more companies invest in researching and developing bio-based product solutions?
The producers of conventional plastic products have come under pressure due to the growing societal and political awareness of climate and environmental impacts. Therefore, companies are on a quest for sustainable solutions! Let me refer once more to the carbon footprint here – companies are desperately looking to reduce it. On the other hand, they seek to increase the percentage of renewable carbon in their products.
Hemp, flax and cotton have already become established ingredients for composite materials. What is the next step?
Most manufacturers still use polymers based on fossil raw materials for making their bio-based composites. However, there are many bio-based polymers on the market these days that are suitable for making partly or even completely bio-based composite materials. These make it possible to conserve fossil carbon resources. Examples include bio-based PE and PP, PLA, PBS, PHA, TPE, PU or also epoxy. Some bio-based polymers are even bio-degradable.
Incidentally, the nova Institute organises the Biocomposites Conference in Cologne every two years, with a packed programme of lectures revolving around bio-based composites and natural fibre composites. The next event will take place in November 2019 so feel free to note it in your agenda (laughs). You will receive more than just comprehensive information about the latest developments in the industry there.
Will CFRP lightweight construction also benefit from renewable raw materials in future?
Definitely! Hybrids are on the advance especially in automotive manufacturing. Combining bio-based textile and carbon fibres, you get extremely lightweight and durable structures. In hybrid construction, natural fibres will definitely play a prominent role just like bio-based polymers. A glass-fibre reinforced PLA has been launched just recently – and can now be found at the “Bio-Based Composites Pavilion”.
Are there any limits to developments and/or bio-based composites?
So far this segment has developed entirely without any material financial grants and subsidies were only available for the energetic use of biomass. Should policy-makers decide to provide support, growth rates might be completely different. The technologies are ready to work! Bio-based composites hold a great potential and we will be showcasing some of the finest solutions at our bio-based Pavilion. Driven by a host of suppliers, distributors are now listing more and more bio-composite granulates in their product portfolio. The unique look and feel of the products convey a sense of high quality and value – and this is received well and highly appreciated by customers. While glass fibres as a rule can be replaced by natural fibres, natural fibres come up against limits as substitutes for carbon fibres.
This year will again see the nova Institute support the “Bio-Based Composites Pavilion” at COMPOSITES EUROPE. What can trade fair visitors expect?
For five years now the Pavilion has been an integral part of COMPOSITES EUROPE. It was born out of the idea to promote bio-based raw materials in the interest of sustainable management. The Pavilion has developed very positively becoming a “touch point” for companies that seek information on sustainable raw materials in the fibre composites sector.
We love to refer to this Pavilion as the melting pot for bio-based composites – here the community meets with leading suppliers and processors. So far ten exhibitors from Germany, Finland, France and the United Kingdom will present their products and services at the Pavilion. They include renowned producers of natural fibre, rovings and terrace decking as well as producers of bio-based granulates for consumer goods. Also on display will be bio-based composites of glass-fibre reinforced PLA for technical and medical applications as well as industrial textile reinforcements for the automotive industry alongside wind turbines. Both bio-based polymers and epoxy resins play a pivotal role to save as much CO2 as possible. Trade fair visitors can also look forward to new information regarding these subjects. The nova Institute does extensive research work in this area and has a number of market studies on bio-based polymers and bio-based composites ready for interested visitors.
As facilitators of the Pavilion we want bio-based composites to also be associated with other innovative, non bio-based high-tech applications at Composites Europe.
Dr. Partanen, thank you for this interview.
Source: Composites Europe, press release, 2018-09-26.
Author: Dr. Asta Partanen, Guido Müller, Svenja Geerkens (nova-Institut)