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The availability of vegetable fibre resources

News International-French

28 Apr 2011

Developing vegetable-fibre-based composite materials raises the question of resource availability: what is at stake for composites development? To ensure a stable supply, material producers are seeking answers to two questions: What kind of availability at what price? How consistent is the quality?

(Published on January-February 2009 – JEC Magazine #46)





Ten organizations – either producers of natural fibres (hemp, flax, wood, etc.) or major players in the agricultural industry – have created a dedicated technical centre called Fibres Recherche Développement® to promote the development of vegetable-fibre agro materials in France. By joining forces within FRD®, these producers expect to be able to reinforce their capacity to provide the types of fibres that are in demand by markets for composites with polymer or mineral matrices. The idea is to anticipate the needs of material manufacturers, both in quality and quantity.


Availability of vegetable fibre resources in Europe

According to the FAO, 4.5 to 5 million metric tons (MT) of vegetable fibres, excluding cotton and wood, are grown worldwide each year. Production is concentrated in Southeast Asia (75%), mostly in India and Bangladesh with jute, coir and kenaf fibres.


About 10% of global production comes from Europe. France plays a major role here, thanks to the organization of its flax and hemp industries, by producing about two-thirds of the European volumes. However, most of the fibres produced in Europe are going for use in traditional markets like textiles (60% of flax) or speciality papers (90% of hemp), meaning that there still are prospects for transfer to the engineering-fibre market.


In France, 88 000 ha were planted in hemp and flax in 2005. But according to a forecast from the French energy conservation agency Ademe, France is going to need to devote about 375,000 hectares to hemp and flax by 2030. To meet these projected needs, fibre producers could take action in three areas:

  • transferring fibre production from traditional markets to material markets,
  • increasing the surface areas devoted to production (an increase of 300,000 ha. is equivalent to 1% of France’s total agricultural area, or to 25% of all fallow land in France in 2007),
  • importing exotic fibres over and above the current annual levels for Europe of 130,000-140,000 MT.


In this regard, FRD® has just launched a prospective study to quantify France’s potential hemp stocks: i.e. just how much area could be planted over in hemp, based on the current surface area of 10,000 ha. devoted to hemp and given constraints such as climate and the profitability of other crops? Another goal is to learn more about imports of exotic fibres into Europe.


Table 1: Examples showing the advantages of a multifibre approach, (source: FRD®).
Properties Recommended
Reinforcement Hemp
High cellulose
Low microfibrillar
High L/D ratio
Small diameter
High mechanical
Insulation Cotton
Low density
Large lumen
High length


From a more general point of view, FRD® suggests reasoning out supply choices as part of a “multifibre” approach. Surface area is not expandable, and given the debate on the competition between using agricultural land for growing food and using it for non-food crops, such an approach would help to:

  • ensure enough stable supply by using fibres from different sources for a single application, as shown in Table 1, or
  • optimize composite-material design by bringing the complementarity of properties into play – e.g. the fineness of flax fibre, the good mechanical properties of hemp, etc.


Even if the resources are actually available, the real issue over the long term is being able to control the stability and quality of the fibre supply, and to standardize the fibres by type of use.


Table 2: Mechanical properties, chemical composition and structural parameters for a selection of vegetable fibres [1].
Fibre Cellulose
content (%)
angle (°)
L/D ratio Max. tensile
stress (MPa)
modulus (GPa)
elongation (%)
Flax 71 10.0 0.12 20 1,687 345-1,035 27.6 2.7-3.2
Hemp 78 6.2 0.06 23 960 690 35 1.6
Jute 61 8.0 0.12 2.3 110 393-773 26.5 1.3
Ramie 83 7.5 0.03 154 3,500 400-938 61.4-128 3.6-3.8
Coir 43 45 1.2 3.3 35 175 4-6 30
Sisal 67 20 1.1 2.2 100 511-635 9.4-22 2-2.5
Cotton 82.7 n.d. 18-28 25-64 110 287-597 5.5-12.6 7.0-8.0



Fibre quality

Many manufacturers, particularly in the building & construction and transport industries, are taking a greater interest in the properties of vegetable fibres. Material specifications – and therefore those for the constituent fibres – are very stiff, especially for a natural resource subject to unpredictable weather conditions that can affect growth. One of the industry’s major challenges is to control the links between the botanical fibre (composition, properties, and role of the fibre within the plant) and the industrial fibre (fibre properties and specifications of the industrial applications).


Identifying key properties

Before developing the solution that will best meet a set of specifications in terms of fibre types and manufacturing processes, you must first identify key properties. To address this challenge, FRD® (like other specialized technical centres) is developing its expertise in taking a set of industrial specifications, translating it into material properties, then expressing these in terms of key fibre properties.


Understanding and controlling variability

While understanding and controlling variability is not an issue for the organic/mineral fibre sector, these are still generating a lot of R&D in vegetable fibres. Like any plant resource, natural fibres present a wide quality range (also called variability), both within a single plant species and across the entire vegetable fibre category. Quality is affected by cultivation techniques and soil and climate characteristics; but also by the extraction and final forming processes that are used. For example, fibre quality might depend on:

  • fibre type (see Table 2),
  • fibre size (see Figure 1), as a function of the method and level of extraction,
  • fibre composition, which depends itself on soil and weather characteristics,
  • independent macroscopic parameters such as humidity and temperature.


More Information....


10 shareholders

La Chanvrière de l’Aube, Interval (hemp), Lin Industriel Picard (flax), Groupe Coopération Forestière (wood), Chambre d’Agriculture de l’Aube, nouricia, In vivo (lignocellulosic crops), ARD (biopolymers), Caisse Régionale de Crédit Agricole Champagne-Bourgogne and Sofiprotéol.


5 areas of expertise

  • Formulating vegetable-fibre-based materials (composites, panels, concrete, etc.)
  • Improving fibre-extraction processes
  • Fibre quality management systems
  • Characterization of fibre properties
  • Resource availability (research on stocks, etc.)


Understanding and controlling such variability is now a top priority in developing the use of vegetable fibres in highperformance applications. FRD® is initiating and leading a large number of projects to find solutions to these problems. It is now well-positioned as a provider of technical support to the vegetable fibre industry, in complement to other national technical centres.


Towards standardization

One last step in the process of controlling fibre quality will be to propose appropriate characterization protocols for vegetable fibres and the materials they are used in, in order to obtain a universal reference system to be shared by the research and industrial communities. The Dehondt Technologies group and the French flax-growers association, Cipalin, have launched a pilot project on protocols to characterize flax-fibre properties for plastic composite applications. The project is being coordinated by BNPP, the French standards bureau for plastics and plastics processing.



[1] Bledzki A.K. and Gassan J., Composites reinforced with cellulose based fibres. Progress in Polymer Science 24(2):221-274 (1999)