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Abaca: Natural Fiber

Once a favoured source of rope for ship's rigging, abaca shows promise as an energy-saving replacement for glass fibres in automobiles.

The Plant

Abaca farmer stripping abaca fiber Also called manila hemp, abaca is extracted from the leaf sheath around the trunk of the abaca plant (Musa textilis), a close relative of the banana, native to the Philippines and widely distributed in the humid tropics. Harvesting abaca is labourious. Each stalk must be cut into strips which are scraped to remove the pulp. The fibres are then washed and dried.

The Fiber

Abaca is a leaf fibre, composed of long slim cells that form part of the leaf's supporting structure. Lignin content is a high 15%. Abaca is prized for its great mechanical strength, buoyancy, resistance to saltwater damage, and long fibre length – up to 3 m. The best grades of abaca are fine, lustrous, light beige in colour and very strong.

Uses of Abaca

During the 19th century abaca was widely used for ships' rigging, and pulped to make sturdy manila envelopes.

Today, it is still used to make ropes, twines, fishing lines and nets, as well as coarse cloth for sacking. There is also a flourishing niche market for abaca clothing, curtains, screens and furnishings.

Paper made from abaca pulp is used in stencil papers, cigarette filter papers, tea-bags and sausage skins, and also in currency paper (Japan's yen banknotes contain up to 30% abaca).

Mercedes Benz has used a mixture of polypropylene thermoplastic and abaca yarn in automobile body parts. Production of abaca fibre uses an estimated 60% less energy than production of glassfibre.


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