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CAR releases study on use of bio-based materials in automotive sector; potential for the Great Lakes Region

There is significant potential for the expansion of bio-based automotive parts and components manufacturing in the US Great Lakes region, according to a newly-released study conducted by the Center for Automotive Research (CAR), a nonprofit research organization based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The report defines bio-based materials as industrial products made from renewable agricultural and forestry feedstocks, which can include wood, grasses, and crops, as well as wastes and residues. These materials may replace fabrics, adhesives, reinforcement fibers, polymers, and other, more conventional, materials.

Encouraging bio-manufacturing and its associated value chain development, and building upon its current expertise in producing conventional parts for automakers, may position the Great Lakes region at a global competitive advantage as oil prices climb, and the demand for more bio-based parts increases. The objective of this study is to assist in identifying business opportunities for increased market penetration of bio-based products into the automotive supply chain.

—The Bio-Based Materials Automotive Value Chain

The study, produced by the Sustainability and Economic Development Strategies group at CAR, notes that the automotive industry’s adoption of bio-based materials has been gradually accelerating over the last several years. This emphasis has been spurred by government regulations, consumer preferences, and, in some cases, financial savings that can be realized from the adoption of these materials and technologies.

In this way, bio-based materials face some of the same challenges to broader adoption that are also faced by alternative powertrain technologies and alternative fuels (many of which are also bio-based). Environmentally-friendly materials and technologies hold the promise of accelerated adoption, as costs drop due to economies of scale made possible by high volume production. This promise of lower costs with increased volumes holds as true for lithium-ion batteries as it does for bio-based floor mats.

—The Bio-Based Materials Automotive Value Chain

Bio-based materials background. Beyond traditional uses for bio-based materials in autos—such as wood trim, cotton textiles, and leather seats—there are two primary applications for these materials: as reinforcement and filler or to create polymers.

  • Bio-based composites may be reinforced or filled with natural fibers including bast fibers, which come from the stem of plants that are specifically grown for fiber (such as hemp, kenaf, flax, and jute); fibers from a variety of wood sources or crop residues; or leaf fibers such as sisal, abaca, and banana fibers.

  • Bio-based polymers can be made from a variety of sources including soybean, castor bean, corn, and sugar cane. These feedstocks are usually fermented and go through a series of conversions to produce polymers that can be used in plastic composites. Just like their conventional counterparts, bio-based polymers can be extruded, blown, molded, injection- molded, foamed, and thermoformed.

Natural fiber fillers and reinforcements are the fastest-growing polymer additive, according to the report. Use of castor and soy-based polyols for interior foams has now become more widespread as well.

Bio-based materials have been tested and deployed in a number of automotive components. Flax, sisal, and hemp are used in door interiors, seatback linings, package shelves, and floor panels. Coconut fiber and bio-based foams have been used to make seat bottoms, back cushions, and head restraints. Cotton and other natural fibers have been shown to offer superior sound proofing properties and are used in interior components. Natural latex is used to enhance the safety of interior components by making the surfaces softer. Abaca fiber has been used to create under-floor body panels.

Recently, there also have been attempts to use natural fiber composites in structural applications; some researchers are interested in combining natural fibers with nano-materials to develop structural components that could potentially be used in automotive components. Though exterior, under-the-hood, and structural applications are more limited and frequently still in various stages of research, they represent some of the more advanced technology and high-value applications of bio-based materials and could potentially become an important part of the market, the report suggests.

Currently, there are no standards in place regulating what can and what cannot be called a bio-based material, although standards organizations such as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) have developed standards for measuring bio-based content and conducting life cycle assessments (LCAs).

The bio-based materials industry already uses these standards to demonstrate the benefits of using these materials and to verify the materials’ renewable content. The difficult issue is determining how to create a labeling system for complex products (such as automobiles) that integrate numerous components. It is not currently feasible to make a significant portion of an automobile out of bio-based materials, and it may never be feasible to make some components out of bio-based materials. A voluntary labeling program could, however, be beneficial to promote the expanded use of bio-based materials in automobiles.

Challenges with bio-based plastics. Although bio-based plastics are coming closer to meeting or exceeding performance parameters and cost of conventional plastics than ever before, there are still some drawbacks which prevent wider application in the automotive industry. These include:

  • Bio-based plastic parts are typically marginally less strong and rigid than their conventional counterparts. While not necessarily a critical factor for a variety of applications (particularly those in the interior of the vehicle), it does limit the use of bio-based plastics for certain structural components.

  • Bio-based plastics are subject to the seasonal and geographic differences found in the plants from which they are made. Weather, climate, soil, and other factors can alter the qualities of a given plant oil or fiber, making it necessary for suppliers to monitor these materials and adapt their manufacturing processes as necessary.

  • Natural variations, particularly among filler materials, can cause natural variation in the appearance and texture of components made from bio-based materials.

  • Bio-based materials have unique negative characteristics, such as odor issues and increased susceptibility to moisture and heat damage, as well as not being sufficiently flame-retardant.

  • Bio-based plastic fillers are more sensitive than their conventional counterparts to high temperatures, which can break down their inner structure. This characteristic limits their use in applications that require high temperature manufacturing processes.

Commercialization. CAR conducted three case studies of successful automaker bio-based product utilization to provide a basis for understanding how a component that integrates bio-based materials is developed and how these materials move from farm to factory:

  1. Wheat Straw Reinforced Composite in a Storage Bin of the Ford Flex
  2. Bio-Based Material Commercialization Fund Managed by the Ontario BioAuto Council
  3. Castor Oil Based Nylon in the Radiator End Tank of the Toyota Camry
Drawing on the literature review, case studies, and meetings with industry representatives, CAR documented lessons learned and obstacles encountered and developed recommendations for increased commercialization and adoption of bio-based materials into automotive supply chains. Lessons learned included:

  • Involving industry in research consortiums;
  • Moving technology beyond university research into the pilot stage;
  • Partnering among companies along the supply chain; and
  • Implementing bio-based materials beyond initial applications.

While this report provides a solid understanding of the current status of use of bio-based materials in automotive parts and components, additional inquiry is needed to understand the current and potential size of the bio-based material market in the automotive sector. Further research could examine the realistic potential of the market and investigate the maturity curve for bio-based technologies in automobiles.

A supplemental study could also address in detail the role of the government in motivating the bio-based automotive market. The study could make recommendations to strategically support the development of the bio-based materials industry specific to businesses and other organizations in the Great Lakes region. Future work could also include the establishment of an automotive bio-based products network in Great Lakes region. Such a network could facilitate relationships and business development among interested stakeholders and cultivate the bio-based automotive components market.

—The Bio-Based Materials Automotive Value Chain



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