25 September 2003

Startup firm explores uses of fiber-plastic products

In a Brooklyn warehouse tucked into the middle of Iowa, entrepreneur Craig Shore is singing the praises of an African fiber that grows 20 feet tall in warm climes.

Shore is part manufacturer, part environmentalist, and he thinks he can help make the products Americans love better for the Earth.

Founder of startup Creative Composites, the Des Moines native has spent three years studying the properties of different natural fibers such as jute, hemp and the aforementioned African kefar, and perfecting techniques for using them.

By mixing naturally strong fibers with plastic and pressing them into pieces, Shore is creating a way to turn sustainable fiber crops into alternatives to materials such as wood and fiberglass.

“It’s hard to grow up in Iowa and not love nature,” Shore says, and “not to want to do whatever you can to better the environment.”

Initially, the company hopes to entice customers with the superior acoustic properties of “fiber composites,” the fiber-plastic mix. For example, fiber can drown out more noise than plastic in car door panels, washing machine basins and tractor cabs.

The concept has been embraced in the past few years by European carmakers DaimlerChrysler, BMW and Volkswagen, which use fiber composite door panels.

“These composites have higher noise absorption. That’s something you can’t get out of fiberglass, a regular piece of plastic, steel or wood,” says Carey Novak, technology transfer associate at Iowa State University’s Technology Commercialization Acceleration Program.

Creative Composites has been working with Iowa State for a year and a half to research and test different fibers.

Sound absorption isn’t the only benefit of fiber composites. Fiber also can be a lightweight alternative — for example, it could replace trees in particle board. Anyone who’s ever dropped a piece of cheap particle board furniture on a toe can see the benefit of something a little lighter.

Fiber composite can be chopped up and remolded. One reason European carmakers are using fiber-based door panels is because of a rising push to make their automobiles easier to deal with once they’ve reached the end-of-life stage.

Shore has been working with Iowa’s Advanced Manufacturing Research and Collaboration Cluster — which includes Hon, Deere, Maytag, Pella, Vermeer Manufacturing, Rockwell Collins, Fisher Controls and Schafer Systems — to pursue the concept’s potential with big Iowa companies.

Creative Composites is looking to log its first customers and ship its first products by the end of this year.

Shore has modified a 250-ton press and molding equipment to handle natural fiber needs. Depending on the creation process, he can turn the fiber into finished products ranging from flexible mats to extremely hard tiles.

Like pure plastic, fiber composite molding can make a much easier job of manufacturing than, say metal, which might need several pieces to make a similar shape.

According to Pennsylvania-based market research firm Principia Partners, fiber-plastic composite is one of the fastest-growing segments of the plastics industry, with demand growing to $775 million worldwide in 2002. North American demand is mainly for building materials, Principia says, especially decking, railing systems, shingles and window and door profiles.

The company has received funding from Poweshiek Bank, the Iowa Department of Economic Development and the Brooklyn municipal phone company.

Related article: Crop residue yields composites (Monday, July 21, 2003)

Source: Global Hemp-News vom 2003-09-19.

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