Composites Design and Manufacture (Plymouth University teaching support materials)
Sustainable Composites
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CAUTION: For the purpose of the Sustainable Composites pages, the materials described are those from natural sources, without prejudice to the results of any future Quantitative Life Cycle Analysis (QLCA) which may (or may not) make the case for these materials being more environmentally-friendly than equivalent systems manufactured from man-made fibres and synthetic resins.  The inclusion of any specific system here is not an endorsement of that product: potential users will need to fully consider each system in the context of their specific technical requirements.

Go directly to: Recent and current United Kingdom and European Commission sustainable composites research projects
Natural fibres Development of thermoplastic biocomposites (CIMNFC BIOMAT LK0807)
Bio-based and biodegradable resins Novel low environment impact polymer matrix composites CIMNFC NOVCOMPS)
Wood-based composites and panel products Processing and cultivation of short fibre flax for high value textile end uses (CIMNFC TEXFLAX)
Combine project: Commingled Biomaterials from Nature (Technology Programme COMBINE)
  Textile reinforcements based on flax fibres for structural composite applications (FP5 TEXFLAX)
Adisa Azapagic's environmental impact classification factorsNew Classes of Engineering Composite Materials from Renewable Resources (FP6 BIOCOMP)
Environmental Assessment Tool for Biomaterials (National Non-Food Crops Centre (NNFCC) Complex Structural and Multifunctional Parts from Enhanced Wood-Based Composites - eWPC (FP7 BioStruct)
Green Guide to Composites/environmental profiling system for composite materials and products (NetComposites) Natural Aligned Fibres and Textiles for Use in Structural Composite Applications (FP7 NATEX)
  Development of sustainable composite materials (FP7 SUSTAINCOMP)
The value of Eco-System Services Innovative advanced wood-based composite materials and components (FP7 WOODY)

The World Commission on Environment and Development suggested that Sustainable Development [Brundtland Commission Report 1987, 1] could be defined as "Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Sustainability is now generally interpreted as a balance between Economic, Environmental and Equity/social factors (a.k.a. Triple E) or between Profit, Planet and People (a.k.a. Triple P) as illustrated in Figure 1.  Brundtland report identified Governance as a fourth factor, but it is rarely explicitly found in the analysis of sustainability for a given situation.  More information on sustainability can be found at the MST326 webpage.

Figure 1: Sustainability Venn diagram (from Maricopa Community Colleges/Sustainability).

Wool and Sun [2] have reviewed the cost-effective utilisation of many common crop plants which may be used to make high-performance engineered materials.  The plants produce oils, proteins, polysaccharides and fibres which can be converted to plastics, adhesives and composite materials.  The sustainable development of bio-based materials requires (a) Biotechnology of plants, (b) Plant Growth, (c) Plant Processing, (d) Plant Utilization and (e) Materials Mass Production.  Wool and Sun also consider the key barriers to integrating these steps and the fundamental issues for the mass production of low cost, sustainable new bio-based materials and products.  Fowler et al [3] have reviewed the technology, environmental credentials and market forces affecting biocomposites.

Cullen and Summerscales [4] have considered the problem of how to effectively determine the fibre volume fraction for natural fibre composites.  Madsen et al [5] considered that the porosity in plant (and other hollow) fibre composites can be divided into three components:

They [5] suggest there is a transition value of fibre weight fraction which gives an optimal combination of high fibre volume fraction, high composite density and low porosity.  They studied natural fibres (flax, hemp and jute) in polymer matrix (polypropylene or polyethyleneterephthalate) composites and observed that the thermoplastic matrix is not able to impregnate the fibre lumen.

Wambua et al [6] have evaluated the ballistic performance of natural fibre composites both as monolithic composites and having a mild steel sheet attached to one or both faces.  The hybrid structures absorbed more energy than either mild steel alone or the monolithic composites.  The critical absorbed kinetic energy of monolithic materials was ranked flax composites > mild steel > hemp/jute composites.

The nova-Institut has recently published data on the use of natural fibres in German automotive production to 2005 [7].

Wood-based composites and panel products

Chen et al [8] have reviewed the materials and structural perspectives on redsign of wood using structural engineering, chemical and/or thermal modification to achieve desired mechanical, fluidic, ionic, optical and thermal properties.

A major market, related to monolithic composites, which is not directly addressed by this course is the use of wood-based materials and wood-fibre composites.  Wood has always been a significant resource for human life.  In 1907, Bakeland added wood particles to the newly developed bakelite as a reinforcing filler.  Composite wood panel products [9] are made from wood-based materials bonded together with a synthetic adhesive using heat and pressure. The materials include veneer, strands, particles and fibres. The nature of the wood raw material and the adhesive essentially determine the characteristics of the various products.  These include mechanical properties, water resistance, dimensional stability, surface quality and machinability.  Strategis [9] have produced a Technology Road Map for wood-based panel products. 

In 1974, ICMA San Giorgio introduced an innovative extruded panel named Woodstock (a mixture of PP in flakes with wood-powder) specifically engineered for the automotive industry.  Sperber [10] has recently reviewed developments in wood fibre composites, while Gsöls et al [11] have considered the interaction between resins and wood.


  1. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (The Brundtland Report), Oxford Paperbacks, Oxford, April 1987.  ISBN 0-19-282080-X.
  2. R Wool and XS Sun, Bio-based Polymers and Composites, Academic Press, 2005.  ISBN 0-12-763952-7.  PU CSH Library.
  3. PA Fowler, JM Hughes and RM Elias, Biocomposites: technology, environmental credentials and market forces, Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 2006, 86(12), 1781-1789.
  4. RK Cullen and J Summerscales, The determination of the fibre volume fraction in natural fibre composites, Invited Presentation: Exploratory Workshop on Environmentally Friendly Composites (EnviroComp), European Science Foundation Physical and Engineering Sciences Committee, University of Warwick - Coventry, 20-21 April 2004.  Restricted: Download 1.01KB .ppt file.
  5. B Madsen, A Thygesen and H Lilholt, Plant fibre composites - porosity and volumetric interaction, Composites Science and Technology, 2007, 67(7-8), 1584-1600.
  6. P Wambua, B Vangrimde, S Lomov and I Verpoest, The response of natural fibre composites to ballistic impact by fragment simulating projectiles, Composite Structures, 2007, 77(2), 232-240.
  7. Michael Karus, Sven Ortmann, Christian Gahle and Cezar Pendarovski, Use of natural fibres in composites for the German automotive production from 1999 till 2005:
    Slowed growth in the past two years – new production techniques arising,  Nova-Institut report, Hürth, December 2006.
  8. C Chen, Y Kuang, S Zhu, I Burgert, T Keplinger, A Gong, T Li, L Berglund, SJ Eichhorn and L Hu, Structure–property–function relationships of natural and engineered wood, Nature Reviews Materials, 04 May 2020.
  9. CN Pandey, SK Nath and D Sujatha, Wood based panel products: technology road map, Journal of the Indian Academy of Wood Science, December 2011, 8(2), 62-67.
  10. Volker E Sperber, Developments in wood fiber composites, In Lignovisionen Issue 4/special Edition (Proceedings of the International Symposium on Wood Based Materials Wood Composites and Wood Chemistry, BOKU Vienna - Austria, 19-20 September 2002), BOKU, Vienna, November 2003, pp 185-192.  ISSN 1681-2808.
  11. Imgard Gsöls, Uwe Müller, Menuela Steiner and Manfred Rätzsch, Interaction between resins and wood, In Lignovisionen Issue 4/special Edition (Proceedings of the International Symposium on Wood Based Materials Wood Composites and Wood Chemistry, BOKU Vienna - Austria, 19-20 September 2002), BOKU, Vienna, November 2003, pp 193-201.  ISSN 1681-2808.

Further reading

  1. Caroline Baillie, Green composites: polymer composites and the environment, Woodhead, Cambridge, 2004. ISBN 1-85573-739-6.  PU CSH Library.
  2. N Chand and M Fahim, Tribology of natural fiber polymer composites, Woodhead Publishing, Cambridge, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-1-84569-393-0.
  3. RM Harrison and RE Hester, Sustainability in agriculture (Series: Issues in environmental science and technology 21), RSC Publishing, Cambridge, 2005. ISBN-13: 978-0-85404-201-2.  PU CSH Library.
  4. K Pickering, Properties and performance of natural-fibre composites, Woodhead Publishing, Cambridge, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-1-84569-267-4.  PU CSH Library.
  5. Renewable biological materials for non-food use - the impact of EU research (1998-2004) EUR 21466. ISBN 9289489774 (2006).
  6. A strategy for non-food crops and uses: creating value from renewable materials, (DTI/Defra, 2004).
  7. Richard Wool and X Susan Sun, Bio-Based Polymers and Composites, Elsevier, 2005. ISBN 0-12-763952-7.  PU CSH Library

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Updated by John Summerscales on 10-Nov-2021 11:28. Terms and conditions. Errors and omissions. Corrections.