Voyage of re-discovery

Arlene Foster investigates new uses in modern transport for flax

Captain Scott used it to propel Discovery to the Antarctic and it stood Nelson’s Victory in good stead at Trafalgar. Flax, once the sailcloth for these great ships, is now being put to the test by today’s mass transport industries.

Faced with ever spiralling materials costs and a growing environmental consciousness, vehicle manufacturers are looking again at natural fibres such as flax as alternatives to conventional materials.

Research has so far concentrated on using flax in composite materials as a substitute for glass or polypropylene fibres used with a polyurethane resin binder, for example.

Flax compares favourably in cost and weight with glass fibre. It is strong. As a natural fibre, it is also biodegradeable, though this can be a disadvantage: in hot, humid climates it can grow mould so must be protected from moisture.

On the Continent, car manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz are already incorporating the long fibres of flax and hemp in door panels and British sports car maker Lotus is investigating ways to use flax in its vehicles. In cars door panels, fascias and seats are all possible targets for flax. For trains the seats could be replaced by flax.

At the Scottish Crops Research Institute in Invergowrie, near Dundee, once the heart of a flourishing flax industry, a team of Scottish and Danish scientists are working with Italian car maker Fiat and Denmark’sstate railways on some new ways of using the material.

The Dundee team aims to use an innovative and environmentally beneficial way of binding the long and short fibres which make up the material’s matrix. The Danish scientists have patented a method which imitates the way natural fibres bind in flax and other plants and could eliminate the need for polyurethane resins.

Details of how the new binding process works are being kept under wraps but Dr Ian Morrison, who is coordinating the project, says the process has been proved using other plants. `The Danes have found a way to re-activate a natural process occurring in plants and are confident they can do the same with flax,’ he says.

Fiat and the Danish State Railways will test the flax-based material in their vehicles. More work remains to be done before the Institute can hand over suitable test material. To this end, Morrison and his team have applied to the European Union for £1.2m to take their research further.