Development of Methodologies for Improving Thermal Stability of Plant Fiber for Application in Thermoplastic Composites
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Thermal degradation during composite fabrication is the main impediment for the wide use of agro-based fibers as filler and reinforcement in engineering thermoplastic composites. Different thermal, chemical and physical techniques (e.g., alkali, steam explosion and retting) aiming to increase the fiber-matrix adhesion or reduce the plant fibers water absorption have been presented in the literature. However, there have been very few attempts to solve the difficulties associated with processing engineering thermoplastics with plant fibers. Most of these attempts involved the use of additives (such as plasticizers and salts) to lower the polymers processing temperature and plant fibers with inherent higher thermal stability (such as Curaua and cellulose). Despite all these efforts, no important progress has been achieved. Therefore, to explore the full potential of wheat straw and expand its use in commercial applications, an experimental study was carried out to develop different methodologies to improve the thermal stability of wheat straw fiber. In this thesis, most attention is given to wheat straw because of the relevance and potential of entering the market as commercial filler today. It is reported here that the thermal stability and chemical composition of wheat straw do not seem to significantly vary with wheat straw type and cultivation region. For example, the main thermal degradation of wheat straw samples starts in a narrow window of temperature which goes from 220.8 to 237.8 °C and from 224.8 to 238.1 °C for air and nitrogen atmospheres, respectively. On the other hand, lignin and inorganic materials are the wheat straw components with the highest relative variation. In addition, it is showed here that silane modification is an efficient method to increase the temperature of degradation of wheat straw. The highest improvements were achieved with chlorosilane modifiers and combinations of alkoxysilane and chlorosilane modifiers. In fact, the silane treated samples have lower thermal degradation during the fabrication of composites with polyamide-6. It is observed here that the extruded and injection molded composites containing silane treated wheat straw samples have significant smaller thermal degradation than those utilizing untreated wheat straw samples. Equally important, it seems that the mechanical properties of the composites are not affected by the addition of silane treated samples in comparison with untreated wheat straw. In addition, another efficient treatment method is presented in this thesis. This method employs ultraviolet light to modify and improve the thermal stability of wheat straw. This method offers important economical and environmental benefits. Significant improvements (e.g., 40 ºC increase on the temperature at 2% of weight loss) were achieved after treatment for short periods of time (up to 15 minutes) and without the use of any pre-treatment or production of toxic by-products. This treatment method represents a novel application for ultraviolet light with potential for industrial use.