Flax, in all its forms, is used in food production, personal care products, animal feeds, fiber and a number of other industrial uses. Read on to find out more about all the various uses of flax seed, fiber and oil. The Canadian commercial flax crop satisfies the diverse needs of a wide group of end users.
The natural qualities of flax make it a desirable oil and fibre commodity for manufacturers seeking alternative solutions to chemical- and plastic-based products. Thus, flax is exported primarily as raw seed for crushing into linseed oil. From the oil, manufacturers create environmentally friendly products such as linoleum flooring, oilcloth, resins, inks, biofuels and also some paints and stains. Flax oil flaxseed, also, has been employed since ancient times in a variety of means to enhance personal care. It has been used as an emollient (softening or soothing to the skin), demulcent (soothing to irritated or inflamed skin or mucus membranes) and useful in formulations for balms, salves and unguents (healing ointments). Similarly, flax straw, in a partially or completely processed form, is used in the manufacture of fine papers and, more recently, for industrial fiber products such as the interior panelling of some cars.
In addition to these industrial uses, new feed and food markets underpin market stability and fuel growth. Seen as a health-promoting ingredient, premium quality flax is rapidly being absorbed into the expanding functional food markets. Functional foods are those food products which have been fortified with a healthful ingredient, or which are promoted because of a healthy ingredient. Flax, with its high alpha-linolenic fatty acid content, ample fibre, and cancer-fighting lignans is a unique functional food. To serve these markets, “super-clean” (judged 99.9% pure) whole seed and packaged milled seed is sold to food manufacturers. The consumer market for whole and milled flax seed, and cold-pressed flax oil is also expanding.
Flax in animal feeds could be an important contributor to animal performance and health. In the pork and beef industries, flax use in hog rations and cattle feed is being investigated for improved production. Meanwhile, flax processors have seen growth in the use of flax by pet food manufacturers. Flax in pet food formulations has been promoted as solving digestive and skin problems in dogs and cats.
Flax for Fibre
The drive for more environmentally sustainable products has seen a renewed interest in the research and development of products made from natural sources. There are innumerable utilizations and product categories that can use biofibers. For example:
There are two main types of insulation: the first type is used to separate or isolate different temperature regimes (i.e. thermal insulation) and the second type is used to separate or isolate sounds (i.e. sound insulation). Most insulation in North America is made into high or low loft mats made with glass fiber or synthetic fibers. These fibers became extremely popular after World War 11. They are consistent, of reasonable cost and not subject to mold. However, they do not degrade easily; glass fibers cannot be burned and synthetic fibers often “gas-off” and/or give off toxic fumes when disposed of by burning. There is a growing trend in North America to develop and use natural fibers for insulation. Flax and hemp fibers can be processed to make an excellent insulation.
Specialty Pulp and Paper
Papermakers often blend pulp from several sources to get the lowest cost combination of properties that they need in the type of paper they want to produce and market. Specialty papers include those that have very specific and small end use volumes. Examples would include paper used to make currency, cigarettes, filter media, and condenser and battery separator pages. Hammermilled unretted or under-retted oilseed flax straw has long been used to make specialty pulp, which is then turned into cigarette paper. This market represents the largest existing use of flax straw in North America.
Geotextiles are broadly defined as textile related products utilized as some form of ground cover. They can be made in a mat or loose form and are used for such purposes as weed suppression, erosion control, rainwater filtration, site remediation and dust and mud control. Geotextiles are most commonly used in hilly and mountainous areas, horticultural regions, urban areas and construction sites. Normally relatively low value coarse fibers are used in geotextiles but lower quality and/or inconsistent quality flax and hemp fibers and cereal straws are finding increased demand in geotextile products.
There is a rapidly growing movement toward the use of more environmentally friendly building products in both Europe and North America. Manufacturers of traditional wood based products are looking for natural or semi-natural products they can substitute for solid wood products due to the rising costs of pure wood. These include such products as plastic composite siding, decking and sheeting made with a combination of resins and ground flax straw or hemp stalks or short biofiber, shive or hurd.
Although there is no linen textile industry to speak of in North America and facilities in Europe are closing, the industry is growing quickly in parts of Asia. World trade in linen and linen blend products is rising as the world textile industry grows in less developed countries and shrinks in more developed countries. The growing linen textile industry in Asia is open to new sources of textile grade fiber to supply the growing world demand for natural based garments and household textiles. The potential for Canadian producers to export high quality fiber in compressed bale or sliver form can be both possible and profitable.
The plastic composite sector includes thousands of possible end use applications ranging from airplane bodies to pipelines, to mining slurry containers to pocket calculator bodies. Plastic composites consist of a fiber-resin matrix that is formed into commercially useful shapes and sizes by means of compression molding, vacuum molding, sheet compound molding rotation molding extrusion molding, injection molding, pultrusion molding or shoot and spray molding. All of these molding methods have somewhat different requirements as to the types of resins and fibers that can be used. Different companies often specialize in doing only one or two types of these molding methods. Often the exact recipes of molds, resins, additives and fibers as well as their pre and post processing protocols are proprietary. Hence, much of the commercialization applications research and development in these products is done privately.
Shive refers to the small broken pieces of flax straw that remains after the fiber is extracted from the straw and can easily represent 60 to 85 percent of the total weight of the straw being processed for fiber. Hence shive represents a very important co-product and a potential source of additional revenue to a biofiber processor. Most higher value uses for shive require consistent sized pieces with different end users wanting different sizes (i.e. the shive for different end users would be the same except for their size). Shive is also being investigated as sources of energy and naturally occurring compounds. One current product destination for larger size shive is horticultural mulch, for medium size, animal bedding and small size can be used as a plastic filler.
Source: Adapted from - Final Report - Research and Innovation: The Status of Canadian Biofibers, Alvin Ulrich and Mark Richards, Biolin Research Inc, 2007, pages 12 – 28.