Once used to preserve bodies, plastination now strengthens biocomposites
Researchers at UBC Okanagan have adapted a technique – originally designed to embalm human remains – to enhance the properties of biocomposites and make them stronger.
With the innovation of new materials and green composites, it’s easy to overlook materials like bamboo and other natural fibers, says UBCO mechanical engineering professor Dr. Abbas Milani. These fibers are used today in many applications such as clothing, the automotive industry, packaging and construction.
His research team has now found a way to not only strengthen these fibers, but also reduce their tendency to break down over time, making them even more environmentally friendly.
“Bamboo has almost the same strength as mild steel while showing more flexibility,” says Dr. Milani, founding director of the Materials and Manufacturing Research Institute. “With its low weight, cost and abundant availability, bamboo is a very promising material but one that had a big drawback until now.”
Bamboo is one of the most harvested and widely used natural fibers in the world with over 30 million tons produced each year. However, its natural fibers can absorb water and degrade and weaken over time due to moisture absorption and weathering.
Using a process called plastination to dehydrate the bamboo, the research team then uses it as reinforcement along with other fibers and materials. Then they harden it into a new high-performance hybrid biocomposite.
First developed by Gunther von Hagens in 1977, plastination has been widely used for the long-term preservation of animal, human and fungal remains, and has now found its way into advanced materials applications. Plastination ensures the durability of the composite material for short-term and long-term use, says Daanvir Dhir, co-author of the report and recent UBC Okanagan graduate.
“The plastinated bamboo composite was blended with glass and polymer fibers to create a material that is lighter and yet more durable than comparable composites,” says Dhir. “This work is unique because there are no previous studies investigating the use of such plastinated natural fibers in synthetic fiber reinforced polymer composites.”
Dhir says this new durable bamboo/woven fiberglass/polypropylene hybrid composite, treated with the plastination technique, has a promising future.
Supported by industry partner NetZero Enterprises Inc., research shows that adding a small amount of plastinated materials to bamboo can increase the composite’s shock absorption capacity, without losing its elastic properties. It also reduces the rate of degradation of the material.
More work needs to be done on optimizing this process as Dhir says plastination currently takes time. But he notes that the benefit of discovering the right composition of plastinated natural fibers will result in a huge reduction in non-degradable waste in many industries, with a smaller environmental footprint.
Future studies are underway to optimize and investigate the effect of plastination of other natural fibers, such as linen and hemp. The researchers also suggest that a material life cycle analysis be performed under different applications and compared to non-plastinated samples. This will provide a better picture of the corresponding trade-off between environmental footprint and mechanical durability effects.
“Biocomposites continue to find new applications within the circular economy paradigm,” adds Dr. Milani. “Innovations in the methods used to develop these composites will ensure benefits in the future.”