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Natural Composites

Table of contents:
 Introduction…………………………………………………….………………………………………………….2
 Types of composites…………………………………….…………………………………………………3
o Natural composites
 Natural fibers in composites…………………………………….………………………………….4
o Plant Fibers – cotton
o Animal Fibers – collagen , chitin , keratin
o Mineral Fibers – asbestos
 Pre-treatments…………………………………………………………………………………………………..6
 Processing techniques……………………………………………………………………………………….7
 Concluding remarks..…………………………………………………….……………………………………8
 References………………….………………………………………………..…………………………………….9

Natural Composites

“Natural Composites”

Introduction to Composite Materials

A composite material can be defined as, “a combination of two or more materials that results in
better properties than those of the individual components used alone.”
In contrast to metallic alloys, each material retains it’s separate chemical, physical, and mechanical
properties. the two constituents are a reinforcement and a matrix. the main advantages of composite materials
are their high strength and stiffness, combined with low density, when compared with bulk materials, allowing
for a weight reduction in the finished part.

Most composites are made of just two materials. One is the matrix or binder. It surrounds and binds
together fibres or fragments of the other material, which is called the reinforcement.


Provides strength and stiffness Protects and transfers Creates a material with attributes
(glass, carbon, aramid, basalt, load between fibers (polyester, superior to either component alone
natural fibers) epoxy, vinyl ester, others)


The use of composite materials dates from centuries ago, and it all started with natural fibres. In ancient Egypt

some 3 000 years ago, clay was reinforced by straw to build walls. Later on, the natural fibre lost much of its

interest. Other more durable construction materials like metals were introduced. During the sixties, the rise of

composite materials began when glass fibres in combination with tough rigid resins could be produced on large

scale. During the last decade there has been a renewed interest in the natural fibre as a substitute for glass,

motivated by potential advantages of weight saving, lower raw material price, and 'thermal recycling' or the

ecological advantages of using resources which are renewable.

Types of Composites
Composite materials are usually classified by the type of reinforcement they use. This reinforcement is
embedded into a matrix that holds it together. The reinforcement is used to strengthen the composite. For
example, in a mud brick, the matrix is the mud and the reinforcement is the straw. Common composite types

Natural Composites

include random-fiber or short-fiber reinforcement, continuous-fiber or long-fiber reinforcement, particulate

reinforcement, flake reinforcement, and filler reinforcement.

Natural Composites

Natural composites exist in both animals and plants. Wood is a composite – it is made from long cellulose

fibres (a polymer) held together by a much weaker substance called lignin. Cellulose is also found in cotton,

but without the lignin to bind it together it is much weaker. The two weak substances – lignin and cellulose –

together form a much stronger one.

Examples of Natural Composites \

Composites do occur in nature--e.g., in tree trunks, spider webs, and mollusk shells.

 A tree is a good example of a natural composite, consisting of

cellulose (the fibrous material) and lignin (a natural polymer)
forming the woody cell walls and the cementing (reinforcing)
material between them.
 The bone in our body is also a composite. It is considered to be a composite material consisting of a high
elastic modulus mineral ‘fibres’ embedded in a low elastic modulus organic matrix permeated with pores
filled with liquids.It is made from a hard but brittle material called hydroxyapatite (which is mainly calcium
Natural Composites

phosphate) and a soft and flexible material called collagen (which is a protein). Collagen is also found in
hair and finger nails. On its own it would not be much use in the skeleton but it can combine with
hydroxyapatite to give bone the properties that are needed to support the body.
 Certain types of large rocks can also be regarded as natural composites when they are composed of a
variety of smaller rocks and minerals.


The vegetable world is full of examples where cells or groups of cells are 'designed' for strength and stiffness. A
sparing use of resources has resulted in optimisation of the cell functions. Cellulose is a natural polymer with
high strength and stiffness per weight, and it is the building material of long fibrous cells. These cells can be
found in the stem, the leaves or the seeds of plants. Natural fibres exist in both animals and plants. Below a
chart is given which shows different sources of natural fibers :

1. Bast fibres (flax, hemp, jute, kenaf, ramie (china grass)

In general, the bast consists of a wood core surrounded by a stem. Within the stem there are a number
of fibre bundles, each containing individual fibre cells or filaments. The filaments are made of cellulose and
hemicellulose, bonded together by a matrix, which can be lignin or pectin. The pectin surrounds the bundle thus
holding them on to the stem. The pectin is removed during the retting process. This enables separation of the
bundles from the rest of the stem (scutching).

Natural Composites

After fibre bundles are impregnated with a resin during the processing of a composite, the weakest part
in the material is the lignin between the individual cells. Especially in the case of flax, a much stronger
composite is obtained if the bundles are pre-treated in a way that the cells are separated, by removing the lignin
between the cells. Boiling in alkali is one of the methods to separate the individual cells.

Flax delivers strong and stiff fibres and it can be grown in temperate climates. The fibres can be spun to
fine yarns for textile (linen). Other bast fibres are grown in warmer climates. The most common is jute, which is
cheap, and has a reasonable strength and resistance to rot. Jute is mainly used for packaging (sacks and bales).

As far as composite applications are concerned, flax and hemp are two fibres that have replaced glass in
a number of components, especially in the German automotive industries. Herenext a few successful results of
evolution are described.

Table 1: Properties of glass and natural fibres

E-glass Flax Hemp jute Ramie coir Sisal Abaca cotton

Density g/cm3 2.55 1.4 1.48 1.46 1.5 1.25 1.33 1.5 1.51

Tensile strength* 10E6 2400 800 – 550 – 400 - 800 500 220 600- 980 400
N/m2 1500 900 700

E-modulus (GPa) 73 60 – 80 70 10 - 30 44 6 38 12

Specific (E/density) 29 26 – 46 47 7 - 21 29 5 29 8

Elongation at failure (%) 3 1.2 - 1.6 1.6 1.8 2 15 - 25 2–3 3 - 10

Moisture absorption (%) - 7 8 12 12 -17 10 11 8 - 25

price/Kg ($), raw 0.35 0.6 –

1.3 - 1.5 0.6 - 1.8 1.5 - 0.25 - 1.5 - 1.5 -
(mat/fabric) 1.5/0.9 -
(1.7/3.8) (2/4) (2/4) 2.5 0.5 0 .7 2.5 2.2

* tensile strength strongly depends on type of fibre, being a bundle or a single filament

2. Leaf fibres (sisal, abaca, palm)

In general the leaf fibres are coarser than the bast fibres. Applications are ropes, and coarse textiles.
Within the total production of leaf fibres, sisal is the most important. It is obtained from the agave plant. The
stiffness is relatively high and it is often applied as binder twines.

As far as composites is concerned, sisal is often applied with flax in hybrid mats, to provide good
permeability when the mat has to be impregnated with a resin. In some interior applications sisal is prefered
because of its low level of smell compared to fibres like flax. Especially manufacturing processes at increased
temperatures (NMT) fibres like flax can cause smell.

Natural Composites

3. Seed fibres (cotton, coir, kapok)

Cotton is the most common seed fibre and is used for textile all over the world. Other seed fibres are
applied in less demanding applications such as stuffing of upholstery. Coir is an exception to this. Coir is the
fibre of the coconut husk, it is a thick and coarse but durable fibre. Applications are ropes, matting and brushes.

With the rise of composite materials there is a renewed interest for natural fibres. Their moderate
mechanical properties restrain the fibres from using them in high-tech applications, but for many reasons they
can compete with glass fibres.

Characteristics of natural fibre composites

+ Low specific weight, which results in a higher specific strength and stiffness than glass.
This is a benefit especially in parts designed for bending stiffness.
+ It is a renewable resource, the production requires little energy, CO2 is used while oxygen is given back to the
+ Producible with low investment at low cost, which makes the material an interesting product for low-wage
+ Friendly processing, no wear of tooling, no skin irritation
+ Thermal recycling is possible, where glass causes problems in combustion furnaces.
+ Good thermal and acoustic insulating properties

- Lower strength properties, particularly its impact strength
- Variable quality, depending on unpredictable influences such as weather.
- Moisture absorption, which causes swelling of the fibres
- Restricted maximum processing temperature.
- Lower durability, fibre treatments can improve this considerably.
- Poor fire resistance
- Price can fluctuate by harvest results or agricultural politics


The use of natural fibres for technical composite applications has recently been the subject of intensive research
in Europe. Many automotive components are already produced in natural composites, mainly based on polyester
or PP and fibres like flax, hemp or sisal. The adoption of natural fibre composites in this industry is lead by
motives of a) price b) weight reduction and c) marketing ('processing renewable resources') rather than technical
demands. The range of products is restricted to interior and non-structural components like door upholstery or
rear shelves.

Table 2: The use of natural fibres in automotive industries

1996 1999 2000 (forecast)
Germany 4 000 14 400
Rest of EU 300 6 900
Total: 4 300 21 300 24 000
In 1999, natural fibres used in the automotive industries comprised 75 percent flax, 10 percent jute,
8 percent hemp, 5 percent kenaf and 2½ percent sisal. There are prospects for 5 to 10 kg natural fibre to be used
per car, thus requiring 80 000 to 160 000 tons in western Europe.

Natural Composites

The use of natural fibres in automobiles has largely been restricted to upholstery applications
because of the traditional shortcomings of natural fibre composites, low impact strength and poor moisture
resistance. Recent research results show that there is a large potential in improving those two properties. This
potential can be found in either in pre-treatments of the fibres or in improving the chemistry while impregnating
the fibres with the matrix material.

Treatment is required to turn just-harvested plants into fibres suitable for composite processing. For
example in case of flax, the first step is retting. It is a controlled rotting process to get rid of the pectin that
connects the fibre bundles with the wood core of the stem.

After the retting, hemicellulose and lignin can be removed by hydro-thermolysis or alkali reactions.
The hemicellulose is responsible for a great deal of the moisture absorption. The lignin is the connecting cement
between the individual fibre cells. Although the lignin builds the bundle, in a composite it will be the weakest
link. During harvesting, pre-treatments and processing, the handling plays an important role. Failure spots on
the fibres can be induced, which cause a reduction of the tensile strength.


In principle, the production techniques for natural fibre composites can be similar to those for glass
fibres. Exceptions to this are techniques used where continuous fibres are used like pultrusion (a yarn has to be
made first) or where fibres are chopped like in spray-up or SMC-prepreg preparation. Four examples of
techniques are discussed below.

1. RTM, vacuum injection

Resin transfer moulding or vacuum injection are clean, closed mould techniques. Dry fibres are put in
the mould, then the mould is closed by another mould or by just a bagging film and resin is injected. Either with
over-pressure on the injection side or vacuum at the other side the fibres are impregnated. Tailored lay-ups and
high fibre volume contents are possible. Therefore, the technique enables the manufacture of very large
products with high mechanical properties. A difference compared to glass is the springy character of the natural
fibres. To enable proper fibre placement and high fibre volume contents, a preforming step may be required.
Preforming is pressing the mats with a small amount of binder (like H2O) into a more compact shape.

Dense mats of flax can be difficult to impregnate. Better resin flow can then be obtained by using the
thicker leaf fibres like sisal.

2. SMC

An important difference with glass SMC (sheet moulding compound) is the production of the prepreg.
Normally prepregs are made by chopping the glass strands and dropping them on a film of resin-filler
compound. This preparation will not work for natural fibres since the chopping is very difficult. Other
techniques are being developed. An appropriate method to get a layer of fibres with an anisotropic orientation
which is loose enough to provide sufficient fibre flow during the moulding process depends on the type of fibre
and on the way in which the raw material is being supplied.

3. Sandwich technology

Today, composite laminates in glass polyester are produced in a continuous way up to a width of 3 m
and with infinite length. Bonded on two sides of a foam block they build stiff sandwich panels that are used a

Natural Composites

lot in trucks, trailers and building construction. They provide thermal insulation and can fulfil a primary
structural function. Small scale prototyping has proved that substitution of glass by natural fibres is feasible. A
bit less insulating, but still very well suitable for wall and roof construction are sandwiches made of natural
fibre composite skins and bamboo pillars as the sandwich core. An optimal combination of two different
mechanical tour de force made by nature. This concept is now under development.

Compared to corrugated iron the 'vegetable sandwich' is not only more elegant, it is more durable, it
insulates far better, and it uses renewable and local resources. Furthermore, the zinc-coat on the steel pollutes,
and when the zinc has gone rust will appear. Finally, in hot climates, a steel roof gives no insulation, and the
heat under such a roof can be unbearable.

Opportunities for low investment production

Production of glass fibres, followed by weave, mat and prepreg manufacture, are based on machinery
and high investments. It takes place in the industrialised countries, so for most countries it is an imported
product to be paid with hard dollars. The production of natural fibres however, can be carried out by manpower
and traditional know-how. In those countries, such as in South East Asia where natural fibres can be grown
quickly and at low cost, the material resources are local. Importing of non-domestic materials, like glass fibres,
at high prices in foreign currency can be avoided.

Production techniques like vacuum injection, hand lay-up, and vacuum pressing are appropriate for a cheap and
easy manufacture of parts with in principle infinite dimensions.

Concluding Remarks :
The main economic advantage of natural fibres may be found in their local availability. Automotive
applications of natural fibre composites have proven themselves very well, especially in the German automotive
industries, but for the moment mainly with the fibres that are grown in Northern parts of Europe being flax and
hemp.Some sisal is used in some technologies where fast impregnation is required, like the Polyurethane
Reaction Injection Moulding (RIM) techniques used for interior parts like door upholstery. Sisal has a less
dense character than flax, thus providing a good resin flow. A 50 percent-50 percent hybrid mat of flax and sisal
is an often used semi-finished material.

But it is doubtful that in these industries the 'tropical' fibres can compete with the 'temperate climate'
fibres, since raw material prices are comparable, while transport cost and lack of control over availability and
quality remain disadvantages. Therefore, exporting sisal as a resource for composite components in a "value-
added" form would be advantageous. This might be in the form of semi-finished materials like pultrusion
profiles or prepregs or as finished components. The processing will be cheaper than in the European countries,
which enables a better competition.

Better opportunities for fibres like sisal are to be found in local use, such as in automotive industries
in countries like Mexico or Brazil or in the use in other local composite industries based on relatively expensive
glass fibres. If the right technologies are introduced a very effective use of locally available materials can be
found in all kinds of every-day structural applications like house construction or boat building.

Natural Composites

1. Holbery, J., Houston, D., Natural Composites in Automotive Applications, JOM, 2006, 11, 80-86.

2. Bledzki, A. K., Faruk, O., Sperber, V. E., Cars from Bio-Fibres, Macromolecular Material Engineering,
2006, 291, 449–457.

3. Bledzki, A. K., Gassan, J., Composites Reinforced with Cellulose Based Fibres, Progress in Polymer
Science, 1999, 24, 221–274.

4. Saheb, D. N., Jog, J. P., Natural Fiber Polymer Composites: A Review, Advances in Polymer Technology,
1999, 18 (4), 351–363.

5. Li, X., Tabil, T. G., Panigrahi, S., Chemical Treatments of Natural Fiber for Use in Natural Fiber-
Reinforced Composites: A Review, Journal of Polymers and the Environment, 2007, 15, 25–33.