7 May 2020

Materials shape our world

By Dr Elammaran Jayamani  

We all know that ‘Everything is made of something’. We use various types of materials such as metals, polymers, ceramics, liquid crystals, and composites for a wide range of applications. It is always a new material that open the door to new technologies, whether they are in construction, chemical, civil, agricultural, nuclear, aeronautical, mechanical, biomedical or electrical engineering. Material scientist, engineers and researchers combine engineering, physics and chemistry principles to solve real-world problems associated with our day to day activities.

It is clearly undeniable that the development of global industry, science and technology has considerably raised the quality of life. However, this process also simultaneously leads to numerous problems especially environmental and health issues. Every day, billions of people throughout the world face the effects of air, land and water pollution. This has forced society to establish new environmental regulations and create new materials from renewable resources to ensure a long-term sustainable development.

The recent years have seen a steady growth in awareness towards new products from renewable sources where researchers and consumers in particular, focus on bio based materials. Green processing, new directions on recycling, social influence and change of perceptive values has led the consumers to opt for environmentally friendly products.

Due to the rapid growth in the manufacturing industries, there is a need for materials with strong properties and improved sustainability in terms of strength, stiffness, density, and cost. The composite materials are one of the materials which possess such properties and it has been the materials of interest for many researchers due to the various advantages they offer as compared to monolithic metal alloys.

Exploration on natural fibre reinforced polymer composites existed since the early 1900s but has not received much attention until late in the 1980s. Composite materials, primarily glass but including natural fibre reinforced composites, are found in countless consumer products including boats, skis, agricultural machinery and cars. A major goal of natural fibre composites is to alleviate the need to use expensive glass fibre which has a relatively high density and is dependent on non-renewable sources.

Recently, car manufactures have been involved in incorporating natural fibres reinforced polymer composites into both interior and exterior parts. This aids a two-fold goal of the companies which is to lower the overall weight of the vehicle thus increasing fuel efficiency, and to increase the sustainability of their manufacturing process. Many companies such as Mercedes Benz, Toyota and DaimlerChrysler have already accomplished this and are looking to expand the uses of natural fibre composites.

Recently, natural fibres extracted from plants, animals and minerals have been receiving more attention than non-natural exploited petroleum-based fibres. While synthetic fibre reinforced composites may have been in use for some time now in structural and semi-structural applications, the disposal of such products is a major environmental concern. As a result, there has been increasing demand for recyclable and/or biodegradable composites.

After discovering the abundance of natural fibres from agricultural and forestry by-products in Borneo, many sustainable products have been developed for various industrial applications. This includes materials for the purpose of sound insulation, dielectric, and packaging applications. The by-products used from Borneo includes rice straw, oil palm fibres, and wood waste.

These fibres offer several distinct advantages. They are less dense, readily available at low cost and possess comparable specific strength over traditionally used synthetic fibres. This in turn means that these composites are cheaper, stronger and are environmentally friendly since they are biodegradable, renewable, recyclable, and sustainable.

Moreover, the end product is suitable for various industrial applications, and also contributes to positive social and economic impact. More importantly, the composites developed have emerged as a new class of sustainable material that is able to address the environmental concerns brought about as a result of the wasteful use of conventional polymer products over the last few decades. These developments will be beneficial to the plastics manufacturing industry, environmentalists as well as agricultural community.

The most significant advantages of natural fibre composites are in terms of cost and weight. On average, natural fibre composites would cost 25-50% less than glass fibre composites. Natural fibres are more ecologically friendly and produce a smaller carbon foot print. Natural fibre reinforced polymer composites are widely used in our daily life in a wide range of applications because of their low weight properties and the high exploited ability to be hand made for a specific end use. The resulting products can be both reused and incinerated.

Unlike glass fibre composites, natural fibre composites do not need to be dumped into landfills because of its biodegradable properties. New materials have been among the greatest achievements of every age and they have been central to the growth, prosperity, security, and quality of life of humans since the beginning of history. Materials science and engineering influence our lives each time we buy or use a new device, machine or structure.

Dr Elammaran Jayamani is a senior lecturer from the Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Science at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. He can be reached via email at ejayamani@swinburne.edu.my.