Utilization of Abaca Fiber as Industrial Raw Material

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1 Utilization of Abaca Fiber as Industrial Raw Material presented during the Workshop Sustainable Development, natural Fibres for modern Technology, Subsistence and Biodiversity Improvement Projects in the Philippines March 11 to 17, 2002 European Nature Heritage Fund partners: The Workshop is staged with the kind support of: DaimlerChrysler and Deutsche Lufthansa Airlines

2 PROBLEM In between only fourty years the primary forests on the Philippines were reduced to about 30 percent. Many endemic animal species like Tarsius, Flying Lemurs and Horn Bill are threatened to extinction due to the destruction of their natural habitats. An extremely rich natural heritage of the Philippines is therefore endangered. The deforested areas are primarily today grasslands or are used as coconut plantations. In the Philippines, a total area of about 2 million hectares was planted with coconut palms within the last century, both in the lowlands and along the hillsides. During this period, coconut became one of the main sources of family income by almost 20 million Filipinos. However, nowadays the income of the farmers derived from coconut trees has reduced significantly due to declining yields of the old plantations and the very low prices of copra and coconut oil both in the local and the international markets. Despite the support from the Philippine government and loans from the World Bank, the replanting program of the government to replace old coconut plantations did not succeed because of the low revenue expectations from coconut production, in general. Since logging was banned in the Philippines in the mid 1990s, the old coconut trees have been cut down and used as construction materials. The tremendous cutting down of coconut trees has created vast open lands that are either left idle for a longer period of time or planted with cash crops like cassava, sweet potato, corn, or upland rice. This type of farming system causes soil erosion problems especially along the hillsides that result not only in the reduction of soil fertility and water holding capacity but also causing sedimentation problems in the coastal areas and even flash floods during heavy rains. In 1991 for example, more than 8000 people were killed by a flash flood in Ormoc City in the island of Leyte. CHALLENGE In order to reduce these destructive impacts on the environment, a sustainable farming system, especially on the hillsides, with appropriate agriculture and forestry strategies is urgently required. The most promising farming system is the rainforestation farming which is already successfully established in some regions of the island of Leyte, thus, ensuring soil cover throughout the year as well as providing new habitat structures for plants and animals. A very suitable plant for incorporation in the rainforestation farming system is abaca or Manila hemp which can be successfully used as cover crop especially in former monoculture palm tree plantations. This banana species originates from the Philippines. Besides erosion prevention, the fiber of the plant could be used as industrial raw material, particularly in the automotive industry. Therefore, it can offer a sustainable source of income not only for small farmers, but also for the local fiber processing industry. 2

3 Natural fibers such as cotton, sisal, ramie, hemp, and flax are traditionally used for textiles, mats, ropes, and filling material for upholstery. As industrial raw materials, natural fibers can replace synthetic fibers in composites that recently become increasingly important for example in the automotive industry due to numerous economic and ecological advantages. DaimlerChrysler as the pioneer in this development implemented e.g. more than 30 components in some of their cars. Nevertheless, in the automotive industry such composites are only utilized in components of low added value in the interior of cars that are not exposed to strong mechanical impacts. The fiber of abaca or Manila hemp offers great potential for different industrial applications. Due to the extremely high mechanical strength of the fiber as well as long fiber length of 2 3 meters, application of abaca even in highly stressed components could be feasible. Despite these advantages, the abaca fiber is currently not used in the industry. Among other requirements its implementation depends also from standardized fiber quality offered in sufficient quantities with guaranteed continuous supply. Currently, abaca is produced mainly by smallholders in the Philippines, who have neither access to high-yielding and disease resistant varieties nor have the machinery needed for proper processing of the raw material. FEASABILITY In view of this situation additional investigations on the production and processing of abaca fiber are necessary. These include selection of suitable varieties, improvement of production conditions, and setting-up a small scale fiber-processing center. Objective of a private-public partnership project carried out in an interdisciplinary approach involving experts and scientists from the automotive industry, textile engineering, plant production, agricultural engineering, economics, and tropical ecology could be a feasibility study. Participation of experienced companies from the automotive industry and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation GTZ, as well as scientific institutions and local experts like the National Abaca Research Center based at the Leyte State University, would ensure the success of the project. The European Nature Heritage Fund (EURONATURE) would be responsible for the environmental education, sustainable habitat protection and ecological evaluation of production and processing of Manila hemp, as well as for local training courses. Scientific Investigations According to the technical specifications needed by the industry, optimal abaca varieties will be identified with regard to their fiber strength, processing and decomposition behavior, as well as mechanical properties of the corresponding composites. For the mechanical tests, selected fibers could then be embedded into thermoplastic and duroplastic polymers. The characteristics of the abaca fiber as well as glass fiber composites in components will be compared in economic and ecological terms. With regard to the agricultural and ecological aspects, the selection criteria for suitable abaca varieties include disease resistance, yield, and the vegetation period. These factors influence the production costs of the fiber significantly. Moreover, the optimum time for harvesting has to be identified since the strength of the fiber depends on the stage of maturity. 3

4 Environmental Aspects The use of abaca fiber will have numerous ecological advantages. Intercropping of abaca with coconut palms and other tree species on the hillsides will improve the conditions for biodiversity, prevents erosion, as well as minimize sedimentation problems in coastal areas which are important breeding places for sea fishes. The water holding capacity of the soil will be improved and floods and landslides will also be prevented. The experiments will be concentrated on areas with mixed cropping of coconut and oil palm, fruit and rubber trees, as well as hardwood because shading is needed for the abaca plant. In those areas the production of natural fibers does not compete with food production at all. Natural fibers have a high strength in relation to their density. Moreover, the energy requirements for production of natural fiber composites are considerably lower than for conventional fibers. In addition, the production of natural fibers is CO 2 neutral. At the end of their lifespan, the composites can either be recycled or decomposed since the fibers. Likewise, the natural fibers can be thermally recycled. Socio-economic and Sustainability Aspects Within such a cooperation, a sustainable production and marketing system of abaca fiber or Manila hemp should be developed. Direct utilization of the fiber will increase the income of the farmers due to production of high-quality raw fibers. When organized into cooperatives, the farmers will be able to process those raw fibers as well as produce fleeces, rovings, and other high value products. This will give them the opportunity to market directly their products. For the development of the processing center that is expected to be operated on cooperative level, knowledge gained from the solar processing center established for cocoa and coffee in Indonesia will be applied. In order to obtain high fiber quality, each processing step including preparation of the fiber, drying and production of fleeces and rovings will be optimized. The thermal energy required for the drying process will be generated using solar collectors integrated into the roof of the processing center. In the project area, it is expected that new job opportunities will be created not only in the processing centers but also in the local industry, especially in ancillary companies. The local manufacturers will have access to new technologies for processing and production of abaca fibers. Because of their innovative products, they will be able to enter new markets. Economic Aspects One of the expected outcomes of the cooperation is the production of high-quality natural fibers and composite materials from abaca with high physical properties. These fibers have a high potential to substitute glass fibers in multiple automotive parts. The use of these natural fibers might be very beneficial for the car manufacturers because they can be substantially and thermally recycled. 4

5 Utilizing these natural fibers will decrease the cost of the components considerably due to the low costs of the raw material. Moreover, production costs of the natural fibers will be reduced by an increased share of locally manufactured components. The local production can have an increasing share in the future. Transferability Aspects Even though abaca is mainly cultivated in the Philippines today, it can be planted in any tropical and humid location. The knowledge and the experience about production and processing gained can easily be transferred to other countries. The optimized fiber qualities available could enhance the share of natural fiber composites in automobiles as well as structural parts in other industries. Moreover, the high-quality fiber could be used in other industrial branches, for example for railway systems and ships as well as for agricultural machinery. CHANCES AND PERSPECTIVES Within a feasibility study carried out by an interdisciplinary group of experts, the fundamentals of improving the fiber quality as well the processing technology will be investigated. Utilization of abaca fiber in composites for highly stressed parts of automobiles would result to numerous ecological as well as economic benefits. Replacing glass fibers by natural fibers could reduce the weight of automotive parts and enables recycling of these components. Integration of abaca plants into rainforestation systems or intercropping with coconut trees in former monoculture plantations will have a significant contribution in the prevention of soil erosion, flooding, and sedimentation in coastal areas. In addition, the local biodiversity will be protected and even rehabilitated providing habitat for endangered species. The production of high quality fibers and processing by small scale local industry creates job opportunities, offers access to new markets, and increase the income of farmers and laborers. The project will not only contribute to the preservation of nature with the fundamental ecosystems but will also stabilize the farm incomes. 5

6 Prof. Dr.-Ing. Dr. h.c. Werner Mühlbauer University of Hohenheim Center for Agriculture in the Tropics and Subtropics Garbenstr. 13, Stuttgart Tel.: ++49 (0) Fax: ++49 (0) Internet: Claus-Peter Hutter President EURONATURE European Nature Heritage Fund Bahnhofstraße 35 D Ludwigsburg Tel.: ++49 (0) Fax: ++49 (0) Internet: March

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