Hemp-Based Biocomposites Said to Slash Carbon Emissions, Offer Sustainable Alternative to Glass Fiber
A pair of serial entrepreneurs, together with their small team of materials and agricultural experts, have developed natural fiber composites that they say boost resin and finished-product performance while offering vastly superior environmental properties to current alternatives.
David Saltman and Gary Balthes have a long track record of building cleantech and natural fiber composites companies. Their fledgling firm, INCA Renewable Technologies Inc., based in Kelowna, British Columbia, is using hemp to produce both short fibers for use in resin-agnostic bioplastics and long fibers for use in panelboards.
INCA BioPlastics™ are compounded pellets designed to replace glass fiber-reinforced plastics (GRP) in the manufacturing of automotive parts and consumer products, among other applications. A product life cycle analysis (LCA) is said to have shown the 100% biodegradable INCA products, compared with GRP, produce 23% fewer carbon emissions, consume 18% less water and 68% less waste during production (see chart).
Saltman: Our projected BioPanels supply is completely sold out, two years before we start production in Indiana.
“Our ability to combine highly refined natural fiber with various polymers and additives will enable injection, compression and extrusion molders to incorporate INCA BioPlastics in their products with little or no modification to existing production lines,” said David Saltman, the company’s chairman and CEO. An injection molder, for example, can just pour the pellets into the machine, he added.
As for the INCA BioPanels™, the company is initially targeting these at the recreational vehicle industry. Most RVs currently are made using 4- by 8-foot lauan rainforest plywood, which is weak, heavy, can be a fire hazard and whose multiple seams tend to show through from under the gel coat finish over time, according to Garry Balthes, INCA’s president and chief technology officer, who has long worked in the automotive industry. The RV industry uses 400 million feet of plywood each year, offering INCA Renewtech a huge potential market.
Balthes: Our continuous biocomposite panels are ideal for replacing plywood in RV construction.
An LCA study by the independent GreenStep Solutions indicated that INCA BioPanels will reduce waste production by 89%, water consumption by 82%, and carbon emissions by 76% compared to the current plywood alternative. Additionally, initial line trials completed in late October indicate that inclusion of INCA’s processed fiber at 30% load improved the flexural modulus and tensile modulus by 40%. INCA is currently pursuing a UL 94-VO fire safety rating for its panels, which also will be waterproof.
It also is very important to RV manufacturers, Saltman stressed, that INCA will be able to make continuous panels up to 50 feet long, enabling unibody construction. It plans to do so on a press line capable of producing sheet-form composites that measure up to 124 inches wide (after trimming) –– which would make it one of the largest in the world. If needed, it can apply an automotive Class A finish to the seamless panels, which is vital since it can cost up to $25,000 just to paint a single RV, Saltman noted.
Beyond the RV industry, INCA sees its BioPanels finding use in the furniture, motion picture, construction and transportation sectors.
To exploit this market opportunity, the company recently purchased 23 acres of land for a new factory in Bristol, Ind., just northeast of the city of Elkhart, widely known as the RV capital of the world. That region produces 80% of the RVs made in the U.S. Plans call for the company to build a 250,000-square-foot plant in Bristol.
At full capacity with three production lines, Saltman said, the facility still will be able to supply only 12.5% of current plywood demand. It will take two years to build the plant, “and our planned production is already completely sold out,” he claims.
To further the project, INCA, in September signed an exclusive sales agreement with Genesis Products Inc. The Elkhart-based firm designs, engineers and makes various products for the RV industry, as well as for markets such as furniture, transportation and construction.
Saltman also sees potential for BioPanels in the furniture and motion picture industries. And once its flame-retardant system is fully certified, INCA projects future demand in sectors such as aircraft and rail, as well.
At the same time as INCA is building the Indiana plant, it also plans to construct a plant in the Canadian Prairies, where Saltman says the “dirty work” will happen. That 200,000-square-foot facility will take in 1,000-pound bales of hemp purchased from Canadian farmers and perform the necessary processing and decortication of the fiber. Hemp has been grown for protein in the Canadian prairie since 1990. INCA will purchase 40,000 tons of this “waste” biomass annually. “It’s important to utilize 100% of the material that comes into our facility,” Saltman said.
About one-quarter of the resulting material will be shipped to Indiana. The long fiber will be used to make BioPanels; the balance will be short fiber, which will be compounded into pellets to be sold as bio-plastic.
The resulting compounds made with natural fibers will be lighter, stronger and less expensive than a comparable material made using glass fiber. It also will be much easier to recycle and, if the core resin used is bio-based, will be compostable, as well.
INCA noted it is “in advanced stages with automotive OEMs and their Tier One supplier to develop INCA BioPlastics for interior trim components.” Additionally, it is in discussions with injection molders to develop consumer products.
With global carbon-sequestering requirements due to take effect in 2025, Saltman noted, “the timing is perfect” for products such as those being developed and commercialized by INCA Renewtech.
More information: www.incarenewtech.com
How It’s Done
The fiber manufacturing process
Bales of hemp stalks are lifted onto a bale breaker, binding straps removed, and the bundles unrolled onto a conveyor. This fiber mat is fed into decortication machinery where a series of rotating cylinders crush the stalks to separate the long bast fiber from the short inner core (hurd). The hurd is pulled off by vacuum and transported to storage bins for further processing into other INCA products.
INCA’s resin-agnostic BioPlastics demonstrate enormous environmental advantages over glass-reinforced plastics.
Clean bast fiber will be further processed to specification, baled, and sent to the Indiana plant to produce BioPlastics and BioPanels. INCA says its ability to transform whole hemp stalk “into precise fiber architecture is unique to the industry and represents significant intellectual property of the company.”
A high-loft mat of natural fiber is deposited onto a continuous belt where it is infused with polymer. This material enters a twin steel belt press, which heats and compresses it, enabling resin flow for thermoplastic chemistry and initiating covalent bonding for thermoset reactions. A second region cools and stiffens the panel, which is cross-cut and edge trimmed to dimensions up to 50 feet in length.
In post-production, panels can be coated with Class A automotive finishes, enabling unibody construction of RVs. Final products are sent to a vacuum stacker, wrapped, and palletized for shipment through INCA’s exclusive distributor, Genesis Products Inc.
Biocomposite pellets for injection molding require fiber lengths ranging between 4 to 7 millimeters with aspect ratios of 15:1. This fiber is dehumidified using radiofrequency dryers, then mixed with various polymers and additives per each customer’s specification. Polymers can range from virgin polypropylene or HDPE, recycled plastic, or biopolymers such as polylactic acid (PLA) or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) to create 100% bio-based final products. INCA’s pellets can be fed directly into injection, compression, or extrusion lines with little modifications to the equipment.