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Technical report for the magazine euroabsract, which covered technical subjects related to the European Union.

Making European Agriculture More Profitable:
Industrial Fibre Crops (excerpt)

Materials made from plant fibres provide many new opportunities for arable farming in Europe. Increased use of these so-called fibre crops would contribute to solving the agricultural surplus problem, while their cultivation would also benefit the environment, since they require relatively low amounts of crop protection chemicals and fertilizers. A recent report for the Commission advocates more research in this area, and urges more to be done to increase awareness of the advantages of fibre crops amongst potential users.

In order to develop applications for alternative crops, and to strengthen the position of non-food crops both qualitatively and quantitatively, a market-oriented study on applications of domestically-produced plant fibres in the non-food industry was commissioned by the European Commission's Agro-Industrial Research Programme. It began by looking at the seven fibre crops used commercially in the European Union: flax, hemp, jute, kenaf, miscanthus, cotton, exparto and New Zealand flax. Jute is the most widely used, but it is imported; the next most-used commercial fibre crops are flax and kenaf, both of which are grown in the EU.

Uses of Industrial Fibres

There are seven broad application areas for plant fibres:

Polymer matrix composites (PMCs) use plant fibres as reinforcement, including thermoset resins, thermoplasts, and elastomers. There is potential for increased use, but additional research is need on problems in PMC-processing such as pretreatments and processing techniques.

Inorganic matrix composites (IMCs) are used for building and construction materials. Plant fibres in IMCs could substitute asbestos, thereby reducing health hazards and weight, helping with waste management, and improving mechanic properties. Here again, more research is needed in processing technologies in order to increase plant fibre use.

Geotextiles are found in road construction and erosion control systems, and plant fibres could offer substantial savings in construction costs. At present, natural fibre use is marginal. Government restrictions on the use of synthetic geotextiles could help, since plant fibres are biodegradable, biocompatible, have no unaesthetic by products and no removal costs. In this area research is needed to tailor the lifetime of plant fibre geotextiles to specific jobs.