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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Recent Developments in the Bio Composite World

There was an article I saw from Insight Partners on LinkedIn about 9 months ago  that said that the Bio Composites market would grow from about $20M to almost $50M by 2028.  So, I thought now would be as good a time as any to explore where that market is going, and what new precursors (fibers and resins) are being scaled up to meet that demand. 


I like this pic because this is what it is all about.  Grow plants that can be used as either food or raw material for structural applications (flax comes to mind rather quickly) and make the composites industry sustainable.  And, apparently that is exactly the idea that a number of people in the industry have.  It wouldn’t grow by 2.5 times in 4 years if that wasn’t the case. 

So, what are the new trends and who is scaling up bio-based fibers and resins to the scale needed for mass production.  That takes a bit of looking, but fortunately for you I’ve been looking around the internet to see what’s happening.  So, here we go. 

There are basically three types of bio-based composites.  First is the hybrid composite where there is still quite a bit of the typical synthetic material – especially reinforcements like glass fiber and some lower strength (read as less expensive) carbon fiber.  These are mixed with natural fibers like flax fiber or cellulose fiber from wood waste to make a hybrid reinforcement.  Then this reinforcement is commonly glued together with your typical epoxy to make a somewhat bio-based composite, or they can even have a mix of standard and bio-derived resin as the glue.  This was initially started in Europe around the turn of the last century, and has grown into a business whereby European consumer products like toasters and coffee makers use this hybrid composite material to replace the plastic or Bakelite housings for small appliances.  It has also made it somewhat into the automotive sector for door interior panels, soundproofing, etc.  It hasn’t caught on that much in the US because US companies at the time had little incentive to change to a bio-based composite precursor business model.  Fortunately, that is changing.  But I’ll get to that later in this post.


The next broad class of bio composites are those where one of the two major components – fiber or resin – is all natural or derived completely from plants.  The largest part of this is the use of the newer plant derived acrylonitrile to make carbon fiber, which I have talked about in the past.  But there is also quite a bit of work on the use of both forest products waste and agricultural waste (corn stalks and the like) to extract both cellulose and lignin and make fibers from both.  And since lignin has a more aromatic structure like the backbone of most resins, it can be used both for making fibers (a replacement for acrylonitrile that can be used to make carbon fiber) and for resins (glues).  Predominantly, however, especially for the forest products industry, it is the cellulose that is in demand for making fiber because it is a much simpler and less expensive process.  These fibers then are mixes with a standard epoxy or vinyl ester (petroleum based) to make a composite.  This all started initially in Europe a little after the hybrid composite work started, and it has now reached the US.  The National Science Foundation now has a center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites at Iowa State University with participation from Washington State, North Dakota State, and the University of Georgia.  This is another University-Industry collaboration where students, faculty, and industry experts get together and work on new renewable source materials and industrial scale development of these into revenue generating businesses.  That is how the University of Delaware initially started their University-Industry Consortium which is one of the longest lasting consortia in this industry. 

The third and last broad class of bio composite development is the fully sustainable, fully plant derived structural composite material.  This has finally become a reality, and it is the piece of the bio composites business that is growing the fastest.  Raw material suppliers have recognized that their future is in sustainability of the materials that they produce and sell into the marketplace. That point became clear to me at the Carbon Fiber Conference this year in Salt Lake where one of the speakers talked about the demand for carbon fiber in the next 20 years or so being 10 times the current manufacturing capacity for carbon fiber.  Several of the attendees, who represented nearly all of the major carbon fiber producers in the world, talked about their company’s efforts to bring a plant based carbon fiber onto the market and scale it up. 

There is also a move toward plant derived resins as well.  These resins are derived from lignin which we have already talked about; and also vegetable oils of all types – edible or not; furan resins derived from cellulose and hemicellulose; rosin derived from the pitch of fir and pine trees, gallic acid from tea leaves, sumac, oak bark and other plants; and a number of sugars or polysaccharides that because of their aromatic structure (like glucose and fructose) and abundance in nearly all plants make for a cheap abundant raw material to make epoxies.  And, according to a report from Polaris Market Research (https://specificpolymers.com/market-study-bio-based-epoxy-resins-market-share-size-trends-industry-analysis-report-2020-2027/), this market was almost $50M in 2019 and is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 12.1%.  That’s a fast growing market, and one that is on the precipice of exponential growth. 

Putting these two together – plant based fiber and resin – makes for a fully plant-derived composite material that is looking like it is the composites business of the future.  I have said this before, but it bears repeating here – the price of plant-based fiber and resin will trend downward as we get more efficient at using sunlight and water to grow the plants to make the material whereas the price of oil is only going to keep going up as it becomes harder and harder to find that next new huge oil field.  There are after all only so many prehistoric plants and animals buried in large enough amounts to make either coal or crude oil in quantities that make getting them out of the ground inexpensive.  It is going to be harder to find oil and when it is found it is going to only get more expensive to get it out of the ground and into a refinery. 

That’s about it for this week.  I wanted to let everyone know that I will be at the SAMPE conference in Long Beach this coming May.  I have been invited to talk at the conference, and my presentation is on the Wednesday of the week of the conference – May 22.  The conference has a focus on sustainability, so you don’t need to guess – yes, that’s what I’m going to be talking about.  And, finally, I need to remind everyone that my book is ready for anyone to purchase.  The best place to get one is to go to my website and buy one.  I will send you a signed copy for the same price you would get charged on Amazon, except that I charge $8 shipping.  Anyway, here’s the link to get your signed copy:  https://www.nedpatton.com/product-page/the-string-and-glue-of-our-world-signed-copy.  And as usual, here’s a picture of the book, for those of you just tuning in.






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