Products made from fibers hold our society together. Fiber products like pulp and paper, furniture and building materials from wood fiber, textiles from natural and synthetic fibers are the more obvious examples of our dependence on fiber technology.

Historically, mineral fibers such as asbestos held a prominent place in a broad range of industrial applications. Since the middle of the 20th century, glass and ceramic fibers have been used in a myriad of critical applications, appearing everywhere in our everyday lives.

Synthetic organic fibers from polyester to Kevlar, and regenerated cellulose such as viscose rayon and cellulose acetate, have conquered large markets.

Fibers are used as thermal insulation materials, and a broad range of nonwoven materials are well established in applications ranging from personal hygiene products to critical surgical materials.

Click the earth for tables on fiber sources and uses worldwide.
Fiber-reinforced plastics (FRPs) best symbolize the versatility of fibers. FRPs have replaced metal and wood in automobiles, aircraft, bath tubs, tanks, and advertising signs. These composites are usually made from glass fiber and polymeric resins, such as polyester, epoxy, and polypropylene. High-performance composites that use carbon or aramid have found a niche market in products that require high strength or durability, such as aircraft and sports equipment.

Cellulosic natural fibers (CNFs) have recently made a comeback – with an array of novel technical uses, in FRPs among other things. Particularly promising is the growing use of flax, jute, sisal, and hemp fibers by a majority of multinational automakers. CNFs now reinforce door panels, seat backs, and trunk and head liners in many new car models. Natural fibers are also making inroads into the fiberglass-dominated European market for insulation mats. Pulps from nonwoods, such as flax, bamboo, hemp, and esparto, are developing new niches in specialty and commodity papers.

What’s driving this growing interest in CNFs? Their intricate structure, optimized by nature, can enhance product properties, resulting in greater strength, lower weight, and higher sorbency. Thus, CNFs often outcompete synthetic and mineral fibers on a cost-per-value basis. Their use can also improve a product’s ecobalance, thus enhancing both its sustainability and its image. Some applications may require fiber finishing, for example by cottonization or acetylation, to meet requirements for fiber fineness or moisture resistance.

The successful introduction of innovative fiber products or improvements to existing product lines requires close attention to the entire value chain – from the farm and factory through process and product development, regulatory analysis, and life cycle evaluation to financing and market development. Dealing with this complexity demands an interdisciplinary approach and real-life expertise in agronomy, biology, fiber availability, emerging technologies, product development, market structures, and economic trends; in other words, a team of experts.