Turning India's jute crops into plastic, while aiding rural development

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Steer Engineering Pvt. Ltd. In a screen shot of a video from Steer Engineering, Prakash Hadimani, general manager of the development center, holds jute fiber near an instrument panel made using jute.

An Indian machinery company said it has developed technology to process jute fiber-reinforced polypropylene compounds, saying it sees significant potential for it in the automotive and household goods industries.

Bangalore-based Steer Engineering Pvt. Ltd. said in a Nov. 10 announcement that using jute could also have significant benefits for India’s farmers and large jute processing mills by opening up more profitable markets than the textiles and sacks the material is primarily used in now.

Steer said, for example, that jute-PP compounds could be used in under-the-hood automotive parts like air intake manifolds and radiator end caps, along with construction materials and microwavable food containers.

“Scientists at Steer have now developed jute-filled polypropylene compounds, by incorporating up to 50 percent by weight of jute, utilizing advanced co-rotating twin-screw platform technology with special patented fractional-lobe elements,” said Managing Director Babu Padmanabhan, in a statement.

“The new material has formidable advantages — it is strong, flexible, and heat-resistant, not to mention that it is also an economical, lighter and eco-friendly reinforcing agent for plastics,” he said.

Steer said it’s commercialized the material for microwaveable cooking containers for an unidentified company and has made car bumper profiles that it’s showing to some manufacturers.

It said it sees potential because jute has “the capability to replace minerals and fibers and help reduce product cost, density and carbon footprint, while improving product performance.”

Steer said jute polymers can boost business for India’s jute mills, which employ 370,000 people, in addition to the 4 million jute farmers in the country.

“There is a potential for a new sunrise industry to emerge, creating thousands of jobs, especially in jute-rich resource states such as West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa,” Padmanabhan said, although he noted that it would require active support and promotion from the regional governments.

“With right kind of government policies it is possible to create a very spirited jute PP industry in India,” Steer said. “We are in the process of setting for a dialogue with the government to sensitize the technology and share with them various business models for adoption and policy requirements.”

The company estimated it would cost about $1 million to set up a one-ton-per-hour jute PP compounding line, with related injection molding equipment.

Traditionally, jute has been used in lower-value added industries like textiles, sacks and bags, and Steer said the “beleaguered” jute industry has been grappling with challenges “such as the rapid onslaught plastic bags as a jute substitute.”

“These jute producers, especially small farmers, would be the biggest gainers because of market expansion triggered by jute polymers,” Steer said. “The demand for jute would increase exponentially, triggering a cascading, beneficial effect on local rural economies of jute-producing states.”

Other groups are also working on jute polymers.

About 95 percent of the world’s jute is grown in India and Bangladesh, and work has been going on in both countries to develop compounds made with jute and thermoplastics to replace glass fiber compounds, according to the website of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

A 2009 report from the Common Fund for Commodities, a global development financing organization based in The Netherlands, said that based on its work on jute-thermoplastic composites, demand may grow quickly because it can be used in a wide variety of applications. But it also said technical and market acceptance questions need to be resolved.