Need for fibre-oriented research

Bio-based industries form an important industrial sector in Europe. The annual turnover of EU's bioeconomy is worth two trillion euros and accounts for more than 22 million jobs and approximately 9% of the workforce [1]. The European Commission has recognized the bioeconomy as one of the future drivers for sustainable economic growth and has shaped a strategy for the development of this industrial sector in Europe. The paper and pulp industry, with an annual turnover of 375 billion EUR and the textile and clothing industry with an annual turnover of 166 billion EUR are major sectors in the bio-based industries in Europe [1, 2] . In total these sectors include 200 000 companies which employ more than 3.5 million people corresponding to approximately 12% share of the employment in manufacturing in Europe. The annual production of natural fibre and wood-plastic composites is 400000 tonnes, which covers 15% of the total fibre reinforced composites production in Europe [3].

These sectors are currently undergoing a fundamental transformation. Paper production has dropped approximately 10% during the last ten years. Despite the growth in packaging and sanitary paper, this has triggered a substantial consolidation in the industry leading to closing of almost 40% of all existing pulp and paper mills in Europe during the last 20 years [4]. At the same time, the competition in textile and clothing industry has significantly changed the sector and shifted production in Europe to specialized high added value products. Competitive products consist of technical/industrial textiles and non-wovens (such as filters, hygiene and medical products including wound care products, regenerative medicine, diapers) along with specialized fashion and design clothing [2]. Environmental concerns have increased consumer awareness and opened up opportunities for less resource intense and less polluting technologies. Additionally, with the ageing society, new demands for medical textile products and material innovations for regenerative medicine are emerging. Also, legislation favours the selection of natural fibres over synthetic ones. For example, EU’s directive requires that 85% of vehicles are reusable and recycled 85% by weight [5]. Natural fibres offer favourable ecological and economic options for composite structures. Relatively high specific strength combined with low price enable the use of natural fibre reinforced composites is various applications, such as in automotive, aerospace and construction industry [6].

The industry is responding to these challenges and trends by undertaking massive investments in order to renew its business [7]. Until 2060, the European paper and fibre industry has committed to achieve about 40% of their future revenue growth, a sum of €3.5 billion p.a., from innovative bio-based products [8]. To achieve the goal, the European bio-based fibre industry must be able to create innovative products, which are able to compete with fossil-based alternatives in terms of price, performance, productivity and environmental benefits. Instead of mimicking properties of fossil-based products, bio-based fibre products should aim for tailored functionalities, which utilize the specific benefits of the bio-based materials. To remain competitive against producers in low-wage resource-rich countries and sustain the bio-based fibre industries in Europe, a realistic alternative is to focus on new high added value products that have increased functionality but reduced environmental impact. To achieve these ambitious goals well-educated future fiber experts are the key and are trained by this project.