With a greater push for sustainably-derived alternatives to plastic and other petroleum-based materials, there is a lot of focus on new and experimental composites. It’s now an exciting time to be following materials science, sustainable manufacturing, and product development. But with new developments, it can be easy to overlook versatile and reliable plastic alternatives that have been in use for years.

Any OEM who chooses to purchase fiber washers for fastener assemblies is well aware of the many benefits of a material known as vulcanized fiber. Also called red fiber, this material is comparable to plastic in many ways, but instead of being made from synthetic polymers, it’s composed of cellulose from cotton, wood, and similar natural sources.

Still used to make all types of products, from skateboards to fiber flat washers and shims, vulcanized fiber is very versatile. Its main advantages are its rigidity, resistance, and lightweight toughness.

When it comes to the manufacture of certain products, it can be overlooked in favor of thermoplastics, but vulcanized fiber can actually offer better strength in some applications. Its renewability, economy, and other advantages have rekindled its relevance in modern manufacturing and materials science.

An Old Material With New Relevance

Vulcanized fiber has been used in engineering applications and a wide range of products since its pre-20th century development. Originally patented in Britain in the mid-1800s and soon after, in the United States, the material was sometimes called by the trade name “Gelatinized Fibre” and was mostly made from recycled linen and cotton rags. The rags were reduced to fibers and processed into paper sheet. Multiple sheets were then compressed and gelatinized using various chemical solutions. Although the production process has not changed a great deal, wood pulp became the dominant source for the bulk of vulcanized fiber.

Prior to the 1930s and the development of many of the conventional plastics we use today, vulcanized fiber was a standard metal alternative for all types of small parts and components, especially those used in electrical appliances.

In addition to its ease of production and low cost, the material reliably insulates electricity, can withstand exposure to many organic solvents and oils, and will resist temperatures as high as 120 degrees C. When correctly processed, vulcanized fibers will not retain any chemicals or binders, which means that chemical leaching, fumes, and other potentially toxic substances are not released if the material starts to break down.

Is There Potential To Rival Plastic?

There are many reasons why plastic led to a wide reduction in the use of vulcanized fiber over much of the twentieth century. Plastic’s durability, resistance to moisture, and broader range of properties easily surpassed the usability of vulcanized fiber in common applications.

However, any number of electronic component manufacturers, users of wood laminations, and fiber washer suppliers will be quick to assert that the material still has many benefits to offer. Today, proponents of renewable and biodegradable products are sharing that view.

From biodegradable plastics derived from shrimp shells to structural materials made from coffee husks, materials development is undergoing many experimental and novel changes. While hardly new, vulcanized fiber has seen a resurgence in interest from scientists and manufacturers who are seeking traditional material alternatives that have potential for continuous use and/or reduced environmental impact.

Retrofitting modern plastic with vulcanized fiber may become more common. Unlike many experimental composites, this material is familiar and offers a predictable performance. Various grades, including commercial, electrical, and wood laminating grades of vulcanized fiber are still a standard in many industries.

Could it soon become a standard for other sectors that previously relied on plastic as a tough but economic material? If the popularity of sustainable, all-cellulose composites continues to grow, vulcanize fiber may reclaim its place as a popular and versatile option.