Natural Fibres

Going Green with Natural Fibres (2009)

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Going Green with Natural Fibres: AAFC Marks Natural Fibres Year

The possibilities for natural fibres have expanded beyond traditional fabrics into applications no one ever imagined. And the United Nations has 'caught the wave;' following on last year's worldwide celebration of the potato, the international body declared 2009 as International Year of Natural Fibres.

For thousands of years, people have used natural fibres to make cloth, string and paper and strengthen building materials. Industrial change and competition from synthetic fibres since the 1960's pushed down demand. But rising oil costs, greater awareness of the environment and advances in science and technology have combined to create an exploding market for enviro-friendly fibres.

Natural Fibres Year will help promote the sustainability, desirability and utility of natural fibres and encourage international partnerships for research and trade among natural fibres interest groups.

This spring, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) announced more than $9.6 million in funding for creation of the Natural Fibres for the Green Economy Network (NAFGEN), under the Agricultural Bioproducts Innovation Program.

NAFGEN is a multidisciplinary network developing value-added markets for flax and hemp fibres. It brings together Canada's top researchers, industry and producers to breed better varieties and solve problems with harvesting, processing, storage, transportation and grading. The network will also develop technologies to convert fibre and associated residue into a range of new industrial products and chemicals. The end result will be new markets for farmers growing these crops.

Along with Natural Resources Canada and the National Research Council, AAFC will work in support of the network. NAFGEN is led by Flax Canada 2015, which represents the flax industry's interests here, and includes several other academia and industry partners.

AAFC scientists are playing key roles on the flax research side. Dr. Scott Duguid and his team from the Morden Research Station in Manitoba will identify and characterize genes and genetic mechanisms involved in the production of fibre yield in flax.

"The new information we glean will translate into flax bred with higher fibre yield and seed yield," says Dr. Duguid.

Dr. Duguid is also spearheading the development of crop management practices to enhance flax fibre production. "Our team will be looking at the effects of seeding date, seeding rate, nitrogen application and fungicide use on fibre yield," explains Dr. Duguid.

Meanwhile, Mark Stumborg from the Semiarid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, is leading the evaluation and development of systems and equipment for harvesting and curing flax.

"Our study will improve the quality, quantity and value of natural fibres and co-products in flax production," says Mr. Stumborg.

In Summerland, British Columbia, Dr. Joe Mazza and his team from the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre will investigate and develop new conversion technologies used in natural fibre-based biorefineries.

"We're working on cost-competitive green technologies that will extract and convert flax straw and shives into two streams - distinctive materials and compounds for further processing," explains Dr. Mazza.

Flax shives are the woody residue left after fibres are removed from straw. They yield 2.5 tonnes per tonne of fibre produced. The massive amounts of flax shives available worldwide could turn an effective processing method for this material into economic gold.

Except for a few niche markets, flax and hemp are currently underutilized in the natural fibres industry. However, the possibilities for end use are virtually limitless: from plastic composites (replacing fibreglass in car panels and sewage pipes) to geotextiles for use in horticulture (serving as a mulch or weed barrier) and in construction (reducing levels of dust and erosion).

AAFC views Natural Fibres Year as a unique opportunity to "get the word out" about flax and hemp crops and the way they can contribute to an environmentally and economically sustainable future for Canadians.

To learn more about:

  • AAFC's efforts to accelerate research, development and commercialization of bioproducts and bioprocesses, visit the Agricultural Bioproducts Innovation Program Web site []

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