When you hear the word ‘composites’, does your mind automatically think synthetic materials? If so, you’re not alone. A composite like carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) is considered a synthetic material. Yet at its core is something found in nature in extremely large quantities: carbon.
It turns out that nature has a lot to contribute to composites. The thing is that composites are not limited to CFRPs and other similar materials. There are wood composites, metal composites, and even composites that start out as natural fibers like flax and cotton.
A composite material is simply a material that starts out as two or more individual materials that are combined together to create something with properties that the other two materials did not possess on their own. The root materials are less important than what they offer combined. That is the secret to creating a good, usable composite.
Composites from Pine Needles
Gaurav Wali, an ingenious designer who hails from India, has found an innovative way to use pine needles to create a composite material. He separates the fibers from leaves and needles and then combines them with a selection of natural waxes and binders. The resulting material is an all-natural, biodegradable composite that can be shaped into any number of objects.
His pine needle composite looks a lot like a pressed wood product. It is fire retardant, water repellent, and very easy to shape. Finished products look beautiful and give off the natural aroma of pine. Wali has already created a number of interesting objects, including planters and small boxes.
Recycling Carbon Fiber Waste
Rock West Composites, a Utah company that supplies carbon fiber and other composite materials, says that what Wali does with pine needles and leaves is very similar to what some other companies are doing with carbon fiber waste. When you consider how much waste comes from producing things like airplane fuselage panels, you understand just how important recycling is.
Carbon fiber waste can be chopped or shredded into small pieces. It can then be heated and pressed into tools (molds) to give a specific shape. Finished products are not as strong and durable as those made with virgin carbon fiber, but they are as strong as a lot of plastics. Furthermore, the hot press process is capable of creating parts in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Another option is to subject chopped and shredded carbon fiber to heat high enough to separate the fibers from the plastic they are embedded in. The resulting material can then be mixed with new plastic to create beads similar to what is normally used in an injection mold machine. The beads can be made into new parts using the same injection molding process.
Nature Contributes the Carbon
All of this is explained to say that carbon fiber parts would not exist without carbon. And where does carbon come from? Nature. All carbon fiber products begin their lives as carbon molecules that are subjected to high heat and pressure in order to align them to create carbon fiber tow.
Carbon fiber tow is a completely natural substance. It is spun into thread and then woven into fabrics so as to create the usable material. It is only when carbon fiber thread or fabric is combined with epoxy resin that you end up with a synthetic product.
Without nature contributing carbon, there would be no such thing as a carbon fiber reinforced plastic. In fact, most of the composite materials on the market today are in some way connected to a contribution from nature.