Commercial crop of kenaf planted in Kentucky; auto applications a potential target

EcoBridge Industries (Louisville, KY) has planted its first commercial crop of kenaf as a vehicle to maturing the markets for natural fibers grown in Kentucky, and the U.S. The company intends to fulfill the mission of "Growing America" by focusing on renewable and natural resources of fibers that can be used in a variety of industries, from paper products to green building materials. The current crop will be harvested in late October 2015.

Door trim base material incorporating kenaf
reinforcement adopted on the Lexus GS.

A typical kenaf crop can be grown in about 150 days from seed to harvest. Depending on the use of the crop, specifications required for use and the type of harvest necessary, fiber yields range from 6 to 10 tons per acre annually. A diverse range of new kenaf products suggests a bright future for the continued expansion of kenaf as a commercial crop in Kentucky.

"We are growing kenaf as foundation for proving the many paths forward for Kentucky's agricultural resources in various industries.  We are now seeking partnerships with processors and manufacturers in the areas of green building applications, paper production, and bioplastics," said Sean M. Vandevander, CEO of EcoBridge Industries.

The company has been investigating existing US bio composite and green building markets as its focal points, and looking at business models for making kenaf attractive for new applications. For example, eco-friendly measures taken by electronics companies are major drivers for sustainability in bioplastic applications.  New developments have also been made in applications for green building materials, such as kenaf as a replacement for wood.

Many US companies have begun importing kenaf and other related fibers from overseas; however the cost of growing these products in America makes environmental and economic sense according to EcoBridge. By 2016, the natural fiber composite industry will be valued at an estimated $4 billion.

"We see natural fibers such as kenaf as the definitive bridge to a true materials revolution. These fibers are already important to car manufacturers for door panels, insulation and dashboards in Toyota vehicles, some of which are currently made in Kentucky," added Vandevander.

In Japan, kenaf is also used as a reinforcing material in composites. Starting with the commercialization of door trim that utilized kenaf material in 2000, Tier 1 Toyota Boshoku has gradually expanded the application of Kenaf material in more vehicle models and components. Currently, the company is working in Indonesia to commercialize everything from the development of the seeds and cultivation, to the production of kenaf fiber boards. In the future the company aims to further expand the application of plant-based materials.

In terms of recent application development, Toyota Boshoku has utilized natural Kenaf fiber in a PP compound for lighter weight door trim and seat back board components that was first employed in the door trim and seat back board of the 2012 model year Lexus GS. The compound has also been used in the air cleaner case of the 2012 Toyota Crown Comfort.

An additive was combined with the PP matrix material to improve its compatibility with the Kenaf fibers. The improvement of the bond strength between the PP and the Kenaf resulted in the development of door trim base material and seat back board base material that was 20% lighter in weight compared to the conventional parts.

The molding process for the base material has also been improved. A simultaneous back molding process was developed that performs the press molding of the base material (PP + kenaf) at the same time as the injection over-molding of the plastic structure for the exposed back side. This was done in an effort to improve the production efficiency and to reduce the size and weight of the back side structure.

Toyota Boshoku expects further weight savings to be achievable in the long run through refinements in the kenaf reinforcing material. The company is also looking at utilizing other plant-derived materials.

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