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Lautenschläger, T., Kempe, A., Neinhuis, C., Wagenführ, A., Siwek, S. (2016). "Not only delicious: Papaya bast fibres in biocomposites," BioRes. 11(3), 6582-6589.


Previous studies have shown favourable properties for papaya bast fibres, with a Young’s modulus of up to 10 GPa and a tensile strength of up to 100 MPa. Because the fibres remain as residues on papaya plantations across the tropics in large quantities, their use in the making of green composites would seem to be worthy of consideration. This study aims to show that such composites can have very suitable mechanical properties, comparable to or even better than the common wood plastic composites (WPCs), and as such, represent a promising raw material for composites and a low-cost alternative to wood.

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Not Only Delicious: Papaya Bast Fibres in Biocomposites

Thea Lautenschläger,a,* Andreas Kempe,a Christoph Neinhuis,a André Wagenführ,b and Sebastian Siwek b

Previous studies have shown favourable properties for papaya bast fibres, with a Young’s modulus of up to 10 GPa and a tensile strength of up to 100 MPa. Because the fibres remain as residues on papaya plantations across the tropics in large quantities, their use in the making of green composites would seem to be worthy of consideration. This study aims to show that such composites can have very suitable mechanical properties, comparable to or even better than the common wood plastic composites (WPCs), and as such, represent a promising raw material for composites and a low-cost alternative to wood.

Keywords: Papaya bast fibres; Biocomposites; By-products; Biomechanical properties

Contact information: a: Institute of Botany, Faculty of Science, Technische Universität Dresden, 01062 Dresden, Germany; b: Institute of Wood and Fibre Material Technology, Faculty of Mechanical Science and Engineering, Technische Universität Dresden, 01062 Dresden, Germany;

Corresponding author:


The papaya plant (Carica papaya) is well known for its delicious fruits and its plentiful applications, e.g., as a medicinal plant (Krishna et al. 2008; Lalla and Ogale 2015; Vij and Prashar 2015) or even as a meat tenderiser (Lieberei and Reisdorff 2007; Krishna et al. 2008). To date, no one has paid much attention to the papaya bast fibres. It is not known what papaya bast fibres were traditionally used for, and they are currently used only for floral decoration, on account of the decorative value of the fibre structure, as can be seen in Fig. 1B. From a biomechanical point of view, previous work on papaya’s stem structure (Kempe et al. 2014) reveals a fibre material with the potential to provide reinforcing material in green composites (Kempe et al. 2015). Fibre characterisations using tensile tests have revealed a Young’s modulus of up to 10 GPa and a tensile strength of up to 100 MPa (Kempe et al. 2015). Although the stiffness and strength of papaya fibres are indeed below average for natural fibres (Thygesen et al.1997; Bismarck et al. 2005; Gurunathan et al. 2015), the density of 0.86 ± 0.07 g/cm3 is in fact one of the lowest fibre densities in the plant world (Bledzki et al. 2001; Kempe et al. 2015), which may make these fibre composites attractive for lightweight engineering. Furthermore, material tests in the past showed that the fibre properties are virtually identical along the entire stem. Fibres at the stem base present a Young’s modulus of 10.9 ± 3.8 GPa, and those at the apex present a modulus of 10.4 ± 2.3 GPa.

Biocomposites are one way to produce goods from renewable sources. This class of materials can be used in all kinds of different applications, ranging from medical devices to architectural decking, lightweight composites for sports equipment, and parts for automotive interiors (Carus et al. 2014). The cited authors showed that the production and use of biocomposites in the German automotive sector could increase fourfold over the period from 2012 to 2020 in view of their advantageous properties, such as the reduction of noise and overall component weight. Concurrently, a global rise is expected in bio-based composites due to the development of high-quality materials and a coincident increase in products (Endres et al. 2014). However, application of the natural fibres in engineering is impeded by the wide variation in their mechanical properties. At the same time, land is needed for the cultivation of bast fibre plants, which could lead to conflicts with areas designated for food production. Of particular interest, therefore, are plants that deliver both food and fibres, such as the well-known coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) (Tomczak et al. 2007) or, as presented here, the papaya (Carica papaya) (Kempe et al. 2015).

In commercial plantations (Fig. 1A), papaya plants are replaced after three to five years. The old plant stems are composted, and the plant tissues decay quickly. However, if the stems were to be subjected to fibre extraction, a large quantity of raw material could be made available for composites, with the total quantity estimated at 1.2 million tons every three to five years (Kempe et al. 2015). This could represent a cheap and easily accessible source of fibre material and could also provide additional income for papaya farmers in tropical and subtropical regions, especially in light of the steadily growing market demand for tropical fruits and the fact that papaya is produced in nearly 60 countries (Evans and Ballen 2015), yielding a gross production value of 4054 million US$ in 2013 (FAOSTAT 2016).

This article focuses on short-fibre reinforced polymers, which are often used in injection moulding or in extrusion and pressing processes. Two main components are needed for the combined material: the matrix and the filler. The matrix fixes the fibres in place and determines the outer form of the composite. Without the matrix, the aforementioned technologies would not be practicable. The matrix materials transfer forces to the fibres and, at the same time, provide protection. Raising the filler content affects the mechanical properties of the composite primarily by increasing the elastic and tensile modulus and helps to reduce the amount of polymer needed (Bledzki et al. 1998). In this study, papaya bast fibre reinforced composites are presented in a common polypropylene (PP) matrix, in contrast to wood-plastic composites (WPCs), which belong to the class of natural fibre composites (NFC).


Materials and Methods

Various papaya fibres were used for the composite samples. To compare the different cultivation areas, and to reflect the work of Kempe et al. (2015), macerated fibres from two sources were chosen: one-year-old greenhouse plants grown at the Institute for Botany of TU Dresden (Germany), and two-year-old commercial plantation plants from Caxito, Province Bengo in northern Angola (8°35´38´´S, 13°37´38´´E). While the greenhouse plants merely reached a basal diameter of 2 cm, plants from the plantation achieved a diameter of up to 20 cm, which, in turn, has an influence on the processing of the fibres. To isolate the fibres from the parenchymatous tissues, the plants were watered for one month. This microbiological retting process facilitates the removal of the fibres. The subsequently macerated and dried material was processed to fragments of approximately 10 mm in length (as shown in Fig. 1C) in a cutting mill, to ensure processing in a heater cooler mixer (HCM) (MTI-M35FU/KMV60, Detmold, Germany).

In this study, the papaya bast fibres were compared with the wood powder LIGNOCEL BK 40-90, purchased from J. Rettenmaier and Söhne GmbH + Co KG Rosenberg, Germany. The softwood product consists of a maximum of 10% fibres with a size greater than 550 µm and a maximum of 95% with a size greater than 150 µm (manufacturer’s specification).

The polymer component polypropylene, PP Moplen HP501L from LyondellBasell, Rotterdam, Netherlands was chosen to grant comparability to materials used in the industry. The used PP has a density of 0.9 g/cm3 and a melt flow rate (MFR) of 6 g/10 min (230 °C, 2.16 kg). The PP grafted with maleic anhydride (MahPP) served as a bonding agent to create sufficient fibre-matrix adhesion. The MFR of SCONA TPPP 8112 FA (BYK Additives and Instrument, Wesel, Germany) is higher than 80 g/10 min, and its content of maleic anhydride is 1.4%.

The composites were manufactured in a M35FU/KMV60 heater cooler mixer by combining 30 wt.% filler material with 65 wt.% polymer and 5 wt.% bonding agent. The compound from the HCM was crushed in a cutting mill to approximately 5-mm size granules. Test specimens of type 1BA according to DIN EN ISO 527 (2012) were produced in a HAAKE MiniJet II (Braunschweig, Germany), as can be seen in Fig. 1d.

The tests included a total of 32 specimens, which were tensile tested according to DIN EN ISO 527 (2012) with a test speed of 2 mm/min at a Hegewald & Peschke Inspekt 10.

The processing method is supposed to be as application-oriented as possible. In this study, therefore, papaya bast fibres are not milled to a powder but merely crushed into fragments. If papaya fibres are processed into composites on-site, they will most likely be milled not into to a powder but rather, as we did, into a shredded fibrous material suitable for further processing.

For the purposes of microscopic analysis, sections taken from a young papaya stem were stained with Basic Blue 140 and Safranin O and examined using a Motic SMZ 168 binocular microscope.

Fig. 1. (A) Papaya plantation, (B) papaya fibre mesh after maceration, (C) ground fibre material, and (D) test sample


Mechanical tests revealed good overall performance by the papaya composites. The Young’s moduli of wood powder composites increased by 107%, and papaya composites are capable of producing increases of 126% (plantation) to 162% (greenhouse). The tensile strength of the papaya composite specimens increased by 26.4% (greenhouse) and 21.4% (plantation), and the addition of wood powder did not have a significant effect on tensile strength, as can be seen in Table 1. Peltola et al. (2014) found similar results for bleached softwood and hardwood kraft pulp composites, as well as for wood fibre composites, although the results achieved by these materials did not reach the level of the papaya fibre composites.

Table 1. Results from the Tensile Tests

(Number of tested samples each is 8. Values are means and standard deviations are bracketed.)

Although previous investigations revealed higher tensile strengths for plantation fibres than for greenhouse fibres (Kempe et al. 2015), this study examined the composites of both, and they gave approximately equal values. Microsections of the samples, as shown in Fig. 2, may explain why the material performed in this way. The WPC microsections differed considerably from the papaya microsections because the bundle structures of the latter had been made visible by the retting process, whereas the wood was subjected to spontaneous shredding at random positions. Lignified wood cells were recognisable by their apparent growth zone, where the cells were in alignment. During the development of secondary xylem, the process of secondary wall deposition is gradual (Murmanis and Sachs 1969). The WPC was therefore found to contain particles with different levels of sclerenchymatisation, as can be seen in Fig. 2 (C2, C3). In contrast, the papaya bast fibre cells were not aligned but rather presented a typical bundle-like structure because of the bast fibre growth process, as shown in Fig. 3. The bundle sizes varied from 50 to 800 µm depending on the developmental stage of the plant. The composite samples with plantation fibres showed a higher percentage of larger fibre cross-sections compared to greenhouse samples, which can be seen in Fig. 2 (A1, A2, B1, and B2). Papaya fibres used in samples therefore have a different L/D ratio. Whereas the fibre length is approximately 10 mm, the diameter of plantation and greenhouse fibres varies apparently (Fig. 2, A1, B1). According to Migneault et al. (2009), higher L/D ratios can improve the mechanical properties, but other authors do not report an improvement of mechanical properties due to higher L/D ratios (Yam et al. 1990; Le Baillif and Oksman 2006). However, it is possible for L/D ratios to be changed completely during processing (Peltola et al. 2014). Bledzki et al. (1998) recommend short and tiny fibres (0.24 to 0.35 mm particle size on average), which have a higher specific surface area and therefore better compatibility, yielding a superior fibre material than that produced with long and thick fibres. This is reflected in the greater standard deviation of plantation fibre samples, which have a relatively high inhomogeneity when compared with greenhouse fibre samples. Furthermore, the material properties are affected by the density differences between the samples due to fibre size (Sobczak et al. 2012). Accordingly, the higher Young’s modulus and tensile strength found in fibre material from plantations do not necessarily yield favourable composite samples.

Squashed fibre cells were observed in all of the samples (Fig. 2 A3, B3, C3). It is certain that both the retting and grinding processes have an impact on fibre quality.

Fig. 2. Microsections of tested samples: (A1) greenhouse fibre composite and in detail (A2); (B1) plantation fibre composite and in detail (B2); (C1) WPC and in detail (C2)

Fig. 3. Cross-section of Papaya bast fibres; fibre bundles, defined as hard bast (dyed red), are separated from one another by phloem rays and soft bast

In terms of price segments, papaya fibre composites represent a worthwhile alternative. Polylactic acid (PLA) is a well-known biopolymer, whose worldwide production rose from 175 tons in 2011 to 675 tons in 2015. Production is forecast to rise to a volume of 800 tons in 2020. The price of PLA currently stands at 1.80 euros/kg, compared with 1.40 euros/kg for PP (Endres et al. 2014). Ideally, the price of the composite would be lower than that of the pure polymer. It is difficult to compare prices in light of the changing circumstances and the relatively small and unstable production volumes of natural fibres. This is the point at which it becomes pertinent to discuss the use of by-products. Wood powder-filled polymers, such as WPCs, represent another approach to this idea. Market surveys show that the most favourable prices for NFC granulate start at 1.00 to 2.40 euros (Endres et al. 2014). Based on the above polymer prices, the calculations including wood powder prices of 0.52 euros/kg (Vogt et al. 2006) yield composite prices of 1.42 euros/kg (PLA) or 1.14 euros/kg (PP). Although a manufacturing chain has not yet been established, papaya fibres could probably be produced even more cheaply than wood powder and also yield better material properties in composites.


  1. Renewable resources contribute to the achievement of ambitious climate protection goals thanks to their biodegradability and, in the case of papaya bast fibres, due to their carbon neutrality. It has become increasingly necessary to reuse residual materials in order to avoid competition with food production, and it is certainly possible to reuse papaya fibres in biocomposites. As papaya bast fibres accumulate in plantations anyway, they do not give rise to competition for cultivation areas and are therefore excellently suited to engineering applications. The only prerequisites for their use are a one-month period of storage in water to allow retting of the bast and subsequent drying in the sun.
  2. Under laboratory conditions, the papaya bast fibres exhibited good processability, including for injection moulding, which is the most common production process in plastics engineering. Their composites therefore present very suitable mechanical properties that are comparable with, or even better than, those of a typical WPC. Composite technology is not yet established in papaya-producing countries, but it should be easy to pass on modern technical standards in order to create new sources of income while also promoting biodegradable products.


The fieldwork in Angola was supported by a travel fund from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). These published results were obtained in collaboration with the Instituto Nacional da Biodiversidade e Áreas de Conservação (INBAC) of the Ministério do Ambiente da República de Angola.


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Article submitted: March 18, 2016; Peer review completed: May 22, 2016; Revised version received and accepted: June 9, 2016; Published: June 22, 2016.

DOI: 10.15376/biores.11.3.6582-6589