EUREKA project develops eco-plastics
A range of new materials which combine natural fibres and plastics has been developed by the EUREKA project FACTORY ECOPLAST. The materials, which are also recyclable, could be used in a range of consumer goods, including audio components such as loudspeakers.
With high oil prices pushing up the costs of petroleum derivatives such as plastics, there is an urgent need for new materials to meet the growing demand for consumer items.
‘We need to develop new materials that are cheaper and better,’ said FACTORY ECOPLAST coordinator Uros Znidaric, of Slovenian company ISOKON. ‘Ideally such materials should also be recyclable more easily, reducing environmental impact.’
Composite materials are nothing new; 3,000 years ago the ancient Egyptians were reinforcing clay walls with straw. Nowadays glass fibres are often used to reinforce plastics, but recent research findings indicate that natural fibres such as flax, hemp and jute could be an excellent substitute for glass. These fibres have good mechanical properties, are low density and crucially, are cheaper than glass.
The FACTORY ECOPLAST partners, who come from Croatia, Hungary, Portugal and Slovenia, studied how the type and level of filling in reinforced plastics affects the properties of the final material. Among other things, they looked at the rigidity, weight and price of the material, as well as the ability to saw and drill the material and its resistance to wear and tear.
‘Once we had enough information about different compound properties, we then focused on product selection,’ explained Mr Znidaric. ‘The new materials are suitable for use in the manufacture of a wide variety of products, including vacuum cleaner and lawn mower parts, storage boxes and even golf tees.’
Of particular interest to the project partners was the use of wood-based composites in acoustic devices. ‘Although wood is known for its good acoustics and is often used in musical instruments, today a lot of speaker boxes are made of injection-moulded polymers,’ said Mr Znidaric. ‘We wanted to see if our new composite, which contains wood, might display better acoustic properties.’
Tests revealed that FACTORY ECOPLAST’s wood-filled composites are well suited to use in loudspeaker boxes, and show similar levels of acoustic performance to models currently on the market. According to the project partners, this means the potential for commercialisation in this area is particularly high.
In addition to the strong performance of the new materials in a range of products, Mr Znidaric believes the natural composites will also benefit from an increased interest in environmentally friendly materials.
‘This is just one more reason why we see a high probability of broad commercial success for our products,’ he commented.
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