Hemp Based Bio-composites Said to Slash Carbon Emissions and Offer Sustainable Alternative to Glass Fiber
Hemp-based Composites Gaining Traction in Various Sectors
Canadian startup INCA Renewable Technologies Inc. is continuing its push to develop and commercialize hemp-based biocomposites as a more sustainable option for applications ranging from vehicle components to boats and wind turbine blades. (UL Prospector first reported on the company’s efforts in November 2021, but much has happened since then.)
Based in Kelowna, British Columbia, the firm is partnering with Toyota Motor North America Inc. on automotive prepregs for its electric vehicles and with Switzerland’s Gurit on what INCA calls its BioBalsa™ product –– a direct replacement for balsa wood and PET. Gurit is a global manufacturer and distributor of composite solutions to the wind energy, aerospace and marine industries.
As previously reported, INCA is partnering with Elkhart, Ind.-based Genesis Products Inc. and their customer, Winnebago, on recreational vehicle (RV) sidewalls manufactured from hemp fiber as a replacement for lauan plywood. INCA also has developed a hemp-based replacement for glass-fiber-reinforced polymers used in injection, compression or extrusion molded glass-reinforced plastics.
David Saltman, INCA’s chairman and CEO, notes how the automotive industry uses resin-infused glass- or natural-fiber-composite (NFC) prepregs to mold interior trim components such as door panels, seat backs and package trays. He says that INCA has developed a new methodology to produce prepregs from a multi-layered mat of hemp and polypropylene fiber. The product reduces the amount of resin required, reducing weight, lowering costs and improving strength.
Toyota North America has commissioned INCA Chief Technology Officer Gary Balthes to develop a recycling program for the INCA PrePregs. The aim would involve the Canadian firm taking back the end-of-life panels and reincorporating them into new products.
“INCA will be the first company to be able to recycle these parts back into new products on its own production line,” according to Saltman.
Big potential for hemp-based prepregs
INCA’s methodology involves producing multilayered mats of hemp fiber, infusing these mats with foamed thermal melt resin, and consolidating the material on its twin-belt press to produce thermoformable prepregs for the automotive industry.
These prepregs will be stronger, lighter, and less expensive than competitive non-woven mats and panel products, according to data from a recent life cycle assessment (LCA). They will sequester rather than generate carbon, be made of renewable resources, reduce vehicle weight, improve side impact resistance, and be formulated to be recovered and reprocessed back into future car parts once automobiles have reached the end of their useful lifecycle.
Scott Oppliger, principal engineer for Toyota North America’s research and development department, states: “It is my goal at TMNA R&D to lay a foundation for others to follow that envisions a more sustainable future and begin a materials development and management project that propagates itself locally and then globally.
“INCA has already begun to develop a vision for a master plan of vehicle life cycle management building off existing models that exist in Europe and fashioning them into INCA’s vision of sustainable and smart technologies for North America and beyond. INCA understands the need to begin sustainable development of materials management that they can perfect locally and then propagate globally as it demonstrates success locally,” Oppliger continued. “We must provide a path that deviates from the current end-of-life process where the interiors end up in landfill or are burned, thereby adding to greenhouse gas emissions.”
A renewable balsa alternative
Low density and high strength make balsa wood an essential core material in boats and wind turbine blades, says Saltman, noting that the wind energy and marine industries use $290 million per year of the material. But this demand has led to the deforestation of Ecuadorian forests. “Prices are skyrocketing, quality is falling, and balsa is in short supply,” he added. “The industry is substituting fossil fuel-based PET foam but seeking sustainable, high-performance alternatives.”
INCA has developed and patented a novel way of converting hemp hurd into BioBalsa, a direct replacement for those currently used materials. It has consistent properties and the strength required for installation in all sections of the turbine blades as well as marine applications. Those industries are actively seeking an alternative core material that can deliver the compressive and sheer strength of balsa while helping them meet aggressive sustainability goals.
INCA is working directly on this project with Gurit’s senior leaders responsible for innovation and circularity. Thomas Nauer, Gurit’s head of sustainability, says: “The BioBalsa project fits nicely with Gurit’s ambitions as a sustainability leader. The wind turbine industry is aiming at zero waste, recyclable turbine structures and is looking for ways to further reduce its greenhouse gas footprint. Therefore, a material that is both bio-based and made from recycled components is clearly a benefit and provides an answer to both sustainability and technology trends.”
No shortage of possible applications
Keith Netting, Gurit’s director of strategic innovation projects and its technology management director, adds: “The potential for hemp-based core is of interest in the composites market for many potential applications. In wind turbine blades hemp-based core could be useful due to its lower LCA footprint and properties for use within certain areas of the turbine blade shells. Initial interest has been positive from this industry.
“For the marine and industrial market, some boat manufacturers are actively developing totally recyclable boats to prevent future marine waste from building up or going to landfill. Their reaction to this type of core is that of high interest for above-water applications currently.”
An independent life cycle assessment conducted by GreenStep Solutions demonstrated that INCA’s hemp-based BioBalsa is far more sustainable than balsa wood. One cubic meter of BioBalsa sequesters 260 kg of carbon dioxide. BioBalsa generates 107% fewer greenhouse gas emissions during the manufacturing process than cutting and milling balsa wood, reduces waste generation by 93%, and water consumption by 93%.
Expanding capacity in western Canada
All of this promising demand is spurring INCA Renewtech to expand its production capacity in Canada. This past April the company announced plans to build a state-of-the-art, 200,000-square-foot fiber processing and composites manufacturing facility in Vegreville, Alberta. Their chosen location is adjacent to InnoTech Alberta, the government of Alberta’s premier research facility for hemp composites, genomics and agronomics.
INCA says it expects its factory to be operational in mid-2024 and create 70 jobs, scaling to about 100 jobs by 2026.
“When ramped to capacity, INCA’s operation will purchase 54,000 tonnes of biomass per year generated from farmers growing hemp for plant-based protein,” says Camille Saltman, the firm’s chief marketing and sustainablity officer. “We will process this renewable resource into highly refined long and short fiber and hurd, the inner core of the hemp stalk.”
“Here in Canada,” she added, “the short fiber will be manufactured into INCA BioPlastics and the hurd will be made into INCA BioBalsa. The long fiber will be sent via rail to our second factory in Bristol, Ind., where we will manufacture INCA BioPanels for the RV industry and INCA PrePregs for the automotive industry.”
INCA Renewtech — www.incarenewtech.com