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With the snow sports season in full swing, my attention was caught by a bit of news from the University of Sheffield's AMRC Composite Centre. A group of young researchers working at the Composite Centre have built two prototype snowboards from flax, cashew nut husks and recycled plastic. Naturally, they also had to personally test whether they really worked.

Karen Laird

January 8, 2013

4 Min Read
Green Matter: Innovative biocomposite snowboard goes for a ride

With the snow sports season in full swing, my attention was caught by a bit of news from the University of Sheffield's AMRC Composite Centre. A group of young researchers working at the Composite Centre have built two prototype snowboards from flax, cashew nut husks and recycled plastic. Naturally, they also had to personally test whether they really worked.

The AMRC Composite Centre started working with biocomposites as part of E-light, a collaborative European project to investigate new lightweight materials for electric vehicles. According to the website, the main objective of E-Light project is "to develop an innovative multi-material modular architecture specifically designed for electric vehicles, achieving optimal light weight and crashworthy performances while ensuring ergonomics on board." Low-weight, high-strength epoxy resin matrix composite materials filled with carbon or glass fit the bill perfectly, but their eco-friendly credentials leave something to be desired.SUSC-Craig.jpg

SUSC snowboard

In an endeavor to improve the environmental performance of composites manufacturing, the AMRC team sought to replace some or all of these raw materials with sustainable alternatives. The researchers were investigating the use of fibers from flax and bamboo, as well as an epoxy resin derived from cashew nut husks which would normally go to waste, and successfully produced two fairing panels for the AMRC's Mantra lorry as showpieces, when they realized the potential of these materials for a product with a more direct and personal appeal: a snowboard.

Hence, while the AMRC team continues to develop biocomposites for a range of transport applications, it also launched an internal project, which became known as SUSC: Snowboard Using Sustainable Composites.

According to development engineer Craig Atkins, snowboards "need to be stiff, strong and light, so are typically made from glass fiber or carbon fiber composite with a wooden core."  The engineers at AMCR have now built two boards from flax fibers embedded in a resin containing 30% of cashew shell epoxy. The core was made from recycled PET foam, derived from old plastic bottles and other waste.

Alistair Murray, a member of the AMRC team, is testing one of the boards during a sabbatical in the Canadian mountains. The other is on show at the Composite Centre, having drawn interest from businesses at the Composites Engineering Show at NEC in November as well as from the extreme sports community.

"There's a number of areas we need to investigate before these biocomposites can go into commercial production," says Tim Swait, AMRC research engineer. "We will research how we can increase the concentration of fibers to give material properties that are at least a match for synthetic composites, and how we design the lay-up for a biocomposite component to optimize its performance. We're also investigating other techniques to improve the energy efficiency of composites manufacturing, such as microwave curing, and whether these can be applied to biomaterials."

The AMRC team is not alone in recognizing the potential of biocomposites in snow sports. Currently, a very small number of indy brands are experimenting with biocomposites, and at least two manufacturers have new bio-fiber skis and snowboards out on the slopes this season already.

Canada's Magine Snowboards and Skis has developed a biocomposite snowboard using Biotex flax fabric from a British company called Composites Evolution.

The snowboard features a wooden laminate core sandwiched between two layers of Biotex, and top and bottom finishing layers bonded together using an epoxy resin system derived from 60% soy material.

European ski manufacturer Whitedot Freeride now uses flax in its CarbonLite series, while Chamonix-based Idris offers skis reinforced with hemp. The hemp skis are slightly heavier but otherwise perform the same as their fiberglass counterparts. Idris is working with the BioComposite Center at Bangor University, Wales to apply hemp as the standard reinforcement material in all their skis. Idris is also researching the use of the patented flax fiber composite ski cores manufactured by start-up company Bcomp company of Switzerland, which combine the low density of structural foam or light-weight wood, with the high shear strength of flax fiber composites. The core material can be processed like wood. The company, which was founded in 2011, says that already 15 small brands and 3 major ski makers are using the cores.

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