Building tractors from flax and hemp

FibreCITY sets the pace in world leading research on industrial uses for biomaterials

FibreCITY has helped build prototypes of biofibre-based industrial products such as hoods for Buhler tractors.

With billions of dollars forecast to be spent on industrial uses for biomaterials, it says something that the world's leading research facility on biofibres is here in Manitoba. Located within Winnipeg's Composites Innovation Centre, FibreCITY is a lab that can help turn bales of flax and straw into parts for cars, tractors and even ceiling tiles.

The facility has already been working with major manufacturers such as Buhler Industries to produce hoods for its tractors. The goal for companies such as Buhler is to gain fuel economy without losing performance by using lightweight materials. At the same time, using biomaterials reduces the company's environmental footprint and helps create a market for previously worthless biomass.

"Farmers sometimes have to pay to have this stuff removed," said Dr. Simon Potter, waving a handful of straw in FibreCITY's spotless lab facility. "If we can add even one cent to this, then that will be good for farmers."

As the vice-president of product innovation for FibreCITY, Potter has been working for about a decade to show that biofibre can be a suitable replacement for plastics in multiple applications. His goal is to develop materials that are as strong, light and versatile as fibreglass. Doing that in a lab is no longer the issue today, he and his team are out to show major manufacturers that they can produce parts with predictable quality on an assembly line.

Earlier this year, FibreCITY unveiled its lab space where it assembled sophisticated equipment to grade a wide variety of biofibres and begin to match plant genetics with their future industrial uses.

"We have equipment that will tell us all the different properties and structures of the fibres," he said, leading a tour of the lab that includes an electron microscope and other tools that measure even the most microscopic elements in a plant fibre. "We're taking this fundamental genetic information and building a system where we can predict the quality of the materials that will be made from these plants before the seed is in the ground."

Offers a competitive advantage

Growing Innovation has invested about $2 million into FibreCITY, because it was seen as an important asset for the Manitoba agricultural sector. "As the only lab of its kind in the world, FibreCITY offers a competitive advantage for industry to use Manitoba as a launching pad for products made from biomaterials," said Eric Liu, business development specialist with Manitoba Agriculture Food and Rural Development.

FibreCITY has attracted academic, industrial and commercial interest from around the world. For example, TTS Inc., an Alberta company, worked with the lab to help produce ceiling tiles and other green building products made from hemp fibre. Many of those materials found their way into the new head office of Hemp Oil Canada, in Ste. Agathe.

"FibreCITY is of critical importance," said Tam Tekle, president of TTS. One of the main challenges of the industry is to establish standards for biofibres. Manufacturers want to be able to order raw materials based on detailed specifications such as moisture content and even brightness. "You can't have a fibre industry without FibreCITY. Without it, any standards that we come up with will be irrelevant."

Another reason why FibreCITY and the Composites Innovation Centre are important, said Tekle, is that they are training the engineers of tomorrow. That expertise will be crucial for the industry to grow and prosper.

Down the road, Potter would like to see farmers and industry more closely tied. The more research is done and the more products are built, the more data can be fed to farmers on what to grow and how to grow it. There may be a day soon when a crop is put in the ground bound exclusively for a manufacturer.