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Homegrown Innovation

Homegrown Innovation

Biocomposite materials made with cross-bred flax fibre could give the automotive and other industries lighter, stronger and biodegradable components.

The GO-4 and GO-4 EV, 52-inch-wide gas and electric urban utility vehicles made by Winnipeg’s Westward Industries are ideal for parking enforcement agencies, police departments, airports and myriad other uses. And they could become even more efficient thanks to an innovative project to replace the aluminum and steel compartment where drivers sit with a “tub” made from lighter, stronger, soundproof and biodegradable biocomposite materials.

“It’s a win-win-win situation,” says Stefano Franz, the President of Westward Industries. “This will speed up the manufacturing process and help the environment. The metal parts can be recycled, but that takes a lot of energy. And the weight reduction improves fuel efficiency.”

Canada is the world leader in flax production, but the plant’s stem produces a very strong fibre that there is little demand for after the oil seeds are extracted. Five years ago, as part of a project supported by Genome Canada, University of Alberta researchers deciphered the genetic code for flax. That opened a door to the Fibre Composites and Biomatrix Genomics (FiCoGEN) project, which sees flax and other biofibres combined with a natural binding resin to make biocomposites for users such as Westward Industries, which could produce a prototype of its new vehicle by autumn 2016.

The resin comes from the lab of Dr. David Levin, a professor in the Department of Biosystems Engineering at the University of Manitoba and FiCoGEN’s academic leader. Dr. Levin and his group have used a novel bacterium that grows on “waste” byproducts from biodiesel production to make a biodegradable polymer. “If we can use waste materials to produce these polymers,” he says, “then it closes the loop and makes things more efficient and better for the planet.”

The project has been shepherded from the start by the Winnipeg-based Composites Innovation Centre (CIC), a not-for-profit that supports biocomposite R&D and commercialization. Biocomposites made with fibre from Canadian-grown flax and hemp — which need minimal herbicides, pesticides and irrigation — could replace fibreglass in the automotive, aerospace and marine transportation industries, says CIC President and CEO Sean McKay. Combined with cement, the fibre could also be used as a building material.

“There are more than 500 varieties of flax in the global core collection,” says McKay. “Genomics is helping us understand different varieties so that we can select and cross-breed those with the most suitable properties to produce higher-quality industrial fibre while still producing quality oil seed.”

August 2016