RESEARCHERS from South Yorkshire are heading for the ski slopes with a prototype snowboard made out of flax and bits of cashew nuts.
A team from the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre has come up with a green alternative to conventional composites made up of carbon or glass fibres, embedded in a resin, made from organic chemicals derived from oil.
Composites are increasingly being used to help boost fuel efficiency in the aerospace and automotive sectors because they are extremely strong, whilst also being very light.
However, the raw materials aren’t renewable, making them is an energy intensive process and the end product isn’t easily recyclable or biodegradable.
Researchers at the AMRC Composites Centre started looking for more environmentally friendly materials to create “biocomposites” as part of a European project to develop new, lightweight materials for electric vehicles.
The team investigated the use of fibres from flax and bamboo, as well as an epoxy resin derived from cashew nut husks which would normally go to waste.
After making two fairing panels as showpieces for the AMRC’s Mantra lorry, which tours schools and colleges to raise the enthusiasm of pupils and students for engineering, some of the young researchers started looking at the potential for using the materials in sports they were interested in.
The result was the Snowboard Using Sustainable Composites – or SUSC – project.
“Snowboards need to be stiff, strong and light, so are typically made from glass fibre or carbon fibre composite with a wooden core,” says development engineer Craig Atkins.
“We decided to take a look at replacing these with more sustainable materials. Flax is a relatively cheap bio-material, with good mechanical properties, and a very good candidate for use in snowboards.”
The team produced two boards from flax fibres embedded in a resin containing 30 per cent of cashew shell epoxy. The core was made from recycled PET foam, derived from old plastic bottles and other waste.
One board is currently being put through its paces by one of the AMRC team, Alistair Murray, during a sabbatical in the Canadian mountains.
The other is now on show at the AMRC Composites Centre, after sparking interest from the extreme sports community and at last month’s Composites Engineering Show at the NEC in Birmingham.
Meanwhile, the AMRC team is continuing to develop biocomposites for a range of transport applications.
“There are a number of areas we need to investigate before these biocomposites can go into commercial production,” says AMRC research engineer Dr Tim Swait.
“We will research how we can increase the concentration of fibres to give material properties that are at least a match for synthetic composites, and how we design the lay-up for a biocomposite component to optimise its performance. We’re also investigating other techniques to improve the energy efficiency of composites manufacturing, such as microwave curing, and whether these can be applied to biomaterials.”