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Race to market to supply biofibre boom

Home Manufacturing & Processing Automotive Race to market to supply biofibre boom

THE South African natural fibre market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6.2% from 2022 to 2028, and, in the automotive sector, the market demand for natural fibre composites globally is rapidly increasing as auto manufacturers work to meet the 2025 Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards (CAFÉ) and consumer preferences change, according to the unit head of Capital Raising and Funding, Coega Development Corporation, Meike Wetsch.

It’s a race to market as vehicles like the Mercedes Benz C-Class, already include 38 natural fibre components.

CSIR and CDC partner

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has partnered with the Coega Development Corporation (CDC) to create a Biofibre Hub in the CDC SEZ which is ideally located to supply the country’s automotive industry and export markets.

According to the group executive for CSIR Advanced Chemistry and Life Sciences, Dr Rachel Chikwamba, “The CSIR views this partnership as a necessary doorway to industrialisation. It supports the realisation of the many years of CSIR investment in the natural fibre and composite materials and will further enable rapid commercialisation of other technologies across the CSIR.”

The CSIR has already developed several applications, including interior door panels and parcel trays, for the automotive industry. CSIR’s impact area manager, Prof Suprakas Sinha Ray, says, “The CSIR has certainly demonstrated its capabilities on natural fibres and developed prototypes that were tested and approved by a select few in the automotive industry.”

Wetsch explains that the facility has been conducting trial processing runs to establish production baselines and peak capacity. “Bear in mind the equipment was used exclusively for research purposes and now we are also running it as an industrial demonstration plant. We needed to test its peak capacity and operating costs under different scenarios to be able to offer shared manufacturing,” she said.

Once financed, the project will be further developed in Coega’s Sustainability business unit, led by Telly Chauke, Coega’s chief sustainability officer. With a total capital deployment exceeding R1 billion over three phases, the project will include a full-scale industrial manufacturing plant and incubation facilities.

Two types of fibre

The facility is primarily working with two types of fibre, bast fibres and leaf fibres. Bast fibre would include cannabis sativa of which hemp is an example. “From a bast fibre point of view, our first choice, once we are allowed to cultivate open fields on an industrial scale, will always be hemp. The mechanical strength and other properties of hemp-derived bast fibre lends itself to a very broad range of industrial applications,” says Wetsch.

She says that while there are still strict restrictions on the cultivation of hemp, the project will use flax, (which is used to make linen) sugar cane, and kenaf.

Bast fibres are typically used to produce non-woven composites which can then become anything from geotextiles used in the agri sector, nappies, and surgical face masks, to door liners and sound deadeners in autos.

When non-woven composites are thermos-moulded, they become hard. “In essence, everything that can be made from glass or carbon fibre can be made from naturally derived bast fibre,” says Wetsch.

“From a leaf fibre perspective, we are looking at creating plant-based leather applications from leaf fibre, such as pineapple and cactus,” explains Wetsch. Current leaf fibre products like Pinatex (used in apparel and accessories) and Deserto, a promising product made from cactus leaves for auto leather, still have drawbacks compared to animal hides.

“To produce an all-natural product in this segment is a key focus for product development in the next phase,” says Wetsch.

Processes add competitive advantage

The standard production process for bast fibres involves decortification, retting and fibre extraction. “The proprietary technology relates to the design of the decortification machines, the way we do the retting to maximise the fibre yield and the way in which we extract the fibre – as these relate to cost and quality, and competitive advantage. Aqua-jetting and thermos-setting are pretty standard processes, but the competitive advantage lies in the detail. The key proprietary technology on the leaf fibre applications relate to the bonding matrices,” Wetsch explains.

“Grow-a-Car” gets noticed

The CSIR/Coega Biofibre Hub or Cluster “Grow-a-Car” project, conceptualised through the partnership, was pitched to the Climate Finance Accelerator and selected to present to funds, potential strategic equity partners and climate financiers. “It gave us much-needed validation of the business case and we have offers on the equity finance we need to conclude phase one which is full bankability and commercialisation, and robust interest on the debt and equity tickets for phase 2, ” says Wetsch.

“Regarding offtake, we have had robust interest, and have offtake commitments from a clothing manufacturer, two auto component manufacturers and even a furniture manufacturer. What is also encouraging is that we received our first call from a multinational OEM who already supports similar innovation and product development globally, and who is keen to work with us on developing the more advanced technological applications,” says Wetsch.

“An economic forecast model developed by Wetsch and Dr Langa Blouw of the Eastern Cape Rural Development Agency, for the Department of Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism, indicates that the project will create 6 000 additional jobs in the province, reaching 20 000 by the time the full value chain is developed,” says Chauke.

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