DETROIT — Farmers in south Texas just planted the raw material that will go into door panels and trunk liners in future American-made cars. Part of last year's flax crop from Canada's province of Saskatchewan makes up half of the mix in the reinforced substrate in General Motors Corp.'s 2000 Chevrolet Impala rear-shelf trim panels.
Interest is expanding for biocomposites, a melding of plastics technology and agriculture that uses fibers from the field.
"There's a buzz about it," said Rich Long, materials and process engineer for Findlay Industries of Troy, Mich. "But it all comes down to whether the economics fall into line."
Both raw material suppliers and molders put their biocomposite programs on display at the Automotive & Transportation Interiors Expo, held May 16-18 in Detroit.
Findlay is using a polypropylene-kenaf blend manufactured by Kafus Bio-Composites of Dedham, Mass., as the reinforced substrate in GM's Saturn deck trays. Other processors are using kenaf in Ford Motor Co. door panels and commercial trucks.
Cambridge Industries Inc. of Madison Heights, Mich., first used Cargill Ltd.'s Durafibre, a 50-50 blend of PP and flax straw, for this year's Impala, said General Manager Dick van Manen.
Kafus first explored kenaf as a raw material for paper production, said David Saltzman, chief marketing officer. It is a partner in a $205 million paper mill that will use bark from the bamboolike plant.
But as word came from Europe of the demand to increase the recyclability of cars, the company began looking at other potential end users for the crop, he said.
"We realized it was an ideal method for composites," Saltzman said. "Glass fiber as a reinforcement is difficult to recycle."
The company's 50-50 kenaf and PP blend produces a reinforced mat that is 30 percent lighter than a glass-PP mix, he said. In addition, said David Agneta, president of Kafus Bio-Composites, the company has more control over the final cost of its product. It contracts with farmers each year in the cotton-growing region near Raymondville, Texas, setting a predetermined price and number of acres.
"We can stabilize our agricultural production," Agneta said. "It has to be cost-competitive. It has to be a superior product or no one is going to buy it."
Kafus' kenaf blend also is going into the packaging and furniture industries, he said.
Cargill Ltd., the Winnipeg, Manitoba-based subsidiary of Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc., uses the straw left over after farmers harvest flax. The harvest chops off the top of the plant for oil, leaving the stem behind. Most of that flax straw is just wasted, burned off or left to rot in the field.
The Durafibre process provides not only the fiber used as a reinforcement in sheet compression molding, but another revenue source for growers, said Betty Tokarchuk, customer relations manager.
Automakers are just starting to ask about potential biocomposite materials for production pieces, Long said, but for now, the final question comes down to money.
"There is a definite interest in it, but it's still a matter of cost," he said.
But as the demand to improve recyclability grows, Agneta expects more and more suppliers will find their solutions down on the farm.
"The government tells the auto companies that they've got to concentrate on the end of the vehicle's life," he said. "The automakers will tell the suppliers they have to supply more recyclable content.
"It's a trickle-down effect that is coming our way."