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This article was published 1/5/2015 (2175 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
THE next billion-dollar market for agriculture could well be building cars. And Winnipeg's Composites Innovation Centre is hoping to be along for the ride.
Automakers such as Ford are using or experimenting with increasing amounts of bio-fibre -- the husks of corn and rice and strands of flax or hemp straw -- to strengthen composite parts such as door panels, cupholders and engine covers. The benefits include reducing the amount of petroleum in plastic parts and replacing energy-intensive strengtheners such as glass fibres.
But knowing which fibres work best for which applications remains a challenge.
So the 12-year-old Composites Innovation Centre is launching the world's only bio-fibre grading system, creating what could become a global database detailing the distinctive properties of bio-fibres from thousands of different crop varieties.
"It's all very good if we can tell Ford we can make one nice door panel (using bio-composites) for them," said Simon Potter, the CIC's vice-president of product innovation. "But they want to know if they can make 100,000 of them and guarantee that it will be the same quality each time."
The CIC's Prairie Agricultural Fibre Characterization Industrial Technology initiative, or FibreCity, could eventually become a platform technology that will help create a whole new industry -- high-value commercial applications for bio-fibres that could be worth billions of dollars in the coming years.
The CIC has just opened its second facility, a 9,000-square-foot production plant in St. Boniface where it can take commercially grown bales of biomass, such as flax and hemp straw, and separate it into fibres. Those fibres can then be tested and the data entered into a grading system and database that can be used to provide predictive models for various properties of the fibre. It will allow producers to go into a field and be able to tell what that bio-fibre can be useful for.
The CIC has invested about $5 million in the development of the grading and production system with funding help from the federal and provincial governments.
It is groundbreaking technology that will be able to determine differing properties of the fibre from variety to variety, species to species, field to field.
"What FibreCity is all about is getting the right fibre at the right time for the right purpose," Potter said. "Eventually, once we have the database in place, we will be able to take a hand-held infra-red camera or something, go out into the field, point it and tell you what the properties of that fibre will be."
The European auto industry is already using 50,000 tonnes of natural fibres annually. But it could become much larger if the manufacturers can start using such material for structural applications and not just stuffing in upholstery or semi-structural parts.
Potter said studies have shown as much as 30 per cent of the fibreglass market could go to bio-fibres if the right quality was there -- which would be worth billions of dollars.
Among other things, the FibreCity database will eventually record and quantify several distinctive properties of thousands of different bio-fibres: the dimensions; the chemistry, particularly the surface chemistry of the fibre to know how it will interact with resins; the way the different fibres cycle moisture; the strength of one strand versus bunches of strands; the effectiveness of treatment of such things as fire retardants; and the molecular structure of the fibre.
"The axiom is, if you can't measure it, you can't manage it," Potter said. "That is exactly what we are setting out to do. No one one else can measure this stuff."
Potter just returned from a trip to China, where there is interest in establishing a satellite FibreCity location. Potter said the idea is to eventually have FibreCity facilities around the world using the CIC's technology. For instance, it would test and grade fibre from sisal, ramie and bamboo in China and southeast Asia, and ones in Australia, Europe and South America would test indigenous crops in those regions.
The CIC recently won an international award from the French-based JEC Innovation Awards for its comprehensive fibre-grading capability.
Since it was formed in 2003, the CIC has developed relationships and conducted joint venture research projects with all sorts of different industrial sectors.
"What we are trying to do is provide a platform technology that will underpin all the different sectors," Potter said. "For instance, if we need a particular variety for aerospace or a ground-transportation application, or a variety for a bio-medical device application, we can provide the basic platform knowledge and the database."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.