Carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRPs) are arguably the most commonly used composite materials in modern manufacturing. They are the choice for aerospace and marine manufacturers alike. Manufacturers of high performance race cars and luxury automobiles also prefer carbon fiber. But there is a new kid on the block that could eventually take carbon fibers’ place: flax fiber composites.
According to Plastics Today, British supercar maker McLaren is currently working on a flax fiber seat in partnership with a Swiss company known as Bcomp. The new seat is the result of reverse engineering McLaren’s current carbon fiber seat and then finding a way to use flax fibers to make it better.
Rock West Composites, a Salt Lake City company that deals in both carbon fiber and natural fiber composite materials, says there are a number of reasons to suggest that flax fiber products will unseat carbon fiber as the preferred manufacturing material in the future.
A Carbon-Neutral Material
Flax is a plant that humans have been using for thousands of years. It is commonly used in the production of linen. What makes it so appealing to the composites industry is the fact that it is a carbon-neutral material. Its carbon neutrality is found in the fact that flax is grown naturally and is fully biodegradable. Recycling helps, but more on that later.
Even better is the fact that flax can be incorporated into crop rotation programs designed to preserve soil and increase sustainability. Incorporating flax allows growers to keep their fields active every season while simultaneously producing a crop the world uses in abundance.
Lower Carbon Footprint
Though flax itself is carbon-neutral, it does have a carbon footprint related to converting flax fibers into a composite similar to carbon fiber. The nice thing is that its carbon footprint is up to 75% lower. What does that mean? It means manufacturers generate less carbon when manufacturing flax fiber composites compared to carbon fiber materials.
For a company like McLaren, a company committed to reducing its overall carbon footprint, trading carbon fiber for natural fiber composites makes a lot of sense. Flax fiber composites help them meet their own sustainability goals while setting an example that others can follow.
Lower Production Costs
The economics of flax fiber composites makes sense, too. One of the reasons carbon fiber is so expensive is that it requires a tremendous amount of energy to produce the raw materials from carbon fiber’s precursor. So just converting carbon into usable fibers costs a lot. The same is not true for flax fibers.
Flax can be harvested and processed into fibers for a fraction of the cost. The fibers can be spun and woven into fabrics more cheaply as well. In the end, you have a material that costs less to produce but provides equal performance.
Recycling further lowers production costs. Older flax fiber materials can be chopped or ground into a fine base material and then used again. Recycled composites generally tend to be cheaper than their virgin counterparts. There is no reason to believe recycled flax fiber composites would be any different.
The Future Is in Flax
Flax fiber composites are not yet ready to fully unseat carbon fiber. That could be several years away for the simple fact that there is still work to be done to perfect the materials. But make no mistake about it, the future is in flax. Meanwhile, engineers and researchers are looking into a host of additional natural fibers that could eventually eliminate the need to manufacture carbon fibers altogether. Rock West says that is good for everyone involved.