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ISU study finds large potential for biobased materials in auto industry, but with challenges

A study by researchers at Iowa State University has determined that the automotive industry has a very large potential to utilize biobased materials. Their report, “Biobased Automobile Parts Investigation”, was developed for the USDA Office of Energy Policy and New Uses. Because SUVs and trucks have a large number of parts, the authors suggested, they are good candidates to be the vehicle types with the largest amount of biobased material on a part number basis.

To create the largest impact, the researchers concluded, emphasis should be placed on the largest producers of vehicles; the five largest producers of automotive vehicles in the United States are General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Chrysler, and Honda. However, they noted, there are also many challenges associated with the use of biobased parts in the auto industry.

Cost to manufacture is one of the main considerations. Other factors used to determine the best material for manufacturing parts for vehicles include:

  • Part performance. Biobased materials may offer improvements such as sound insulation or improved performance characteristics.

  • Weight. Biobased materials may require heavier parts due to lower material strength.

  • Durability. Biobased materials may affect durability depending on the biodegradability nature of the material.

  • Safety. Biobased materials may require substantial testing to ensure safety standards can be met.

  • Biodegradability. Biobased materials may provide excellent biodegradability due to the renewable nature of the source materials.

  • Sustainability/carbon foot print. Biobased materials may or may not make improvements in this area due to being produced from renewable sources. Definitive measures of carbon foot print and broader assessments of sustainability will require utilization of formal lifecycle assessment tools.

  • Availability of biobased materials. Biobased materials availability may improve over time due to the increased demand and research, however, current resources may be have predicted limits.

  • New attributes or performance characteristics. In some situations biobased lubricants provide improved lubricity and therefore reduce wear on metal parts.

  • Recyclability. Biobased materials may impact established recycling channels.

Because these considerations or attributes of the parts are related to the material they are manufactured from, the ultimate use of biobased materials is not a simple process. Switching to biobased materials is a very complex process and is many times an optimal balance of the above considerations against the cost to manufacture. The research and development in the area of biobased materials and parts takes time and money, which affects the bottom-line profits of the automotive manufacturers and their part suppliers.

The use of biobased materials has to also be sold to the customers. The ability to market the use of biobased in automotive manufacturing is important in having the customer accept or appreciate the use of biobased materials without sacrificing performance or characteristics of the automotive vehicle they choose to buy. Marketing the use of biobased materials being used in an automobile costs money and must be part of the consideration in the cost of using biobased parts.

The above challenges contribute to the complex nature of the automotive industry and its products. This complexity is increased by the proprietary nature of the research and development of biobased materials and parts. New biobased materials are being developed each year, which means that new standards to evaluate those materials need to be developed along with new processes to manufacture parts from those biobased materials.

—“Biobased Automobile Parts Investigation”

Examples of biobased parts in production. The report listed a few examples of what is currently in production and currently in development, including:

  • Daimler. Daimler is currently producing an air filter system that is made of 60% polyamide which will replace the plastics produced from fossil fuel resources. In addition, the door cladding, seatback linings, and package shelves of the Mercedes Benz contain process flax, hemp, and sisal. Seat bottoms, back cushions, and head restraints contain coconut fiber and caoutchouc (a source of natural latex). Under-floor body panels are made using the abaca tree. These panels are used on the cover for the spare-wheel compartment in the three-door version of the Mercedes Benz A-Class model. The abaca plant fibers used have very high tensile strength.

  • Ford. The 2010 Ford Flex’s third-row interior storage bins contained 20% wheat straw biofiller. Soy-based polyurethane foams have been placed in the seat cushions and seatbacks of the Ford Mustang, Expedition, F-150, Focus, Escape, Escape Hybrid, Mercury Mariner, Lincoln Navigator, Lincoln MKS, and, most recently, 2010 Taurus. Soy-foam headliners were put in place for the 2010 Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner. Part of the Ford Mustang GT RTD body is made of flax fiber-reinforced linseed-acrylate, which is a high-performance composite made of natural fibers embedded in a resin from the same plants (flax and linseed).

  • General Motors. The Saturn L300 and European-market Opel Vectra have package trays and door panel inserts made of a kenaf and flax mixture. Wood fiber is being used in the cargo area floor of the GMC Envoy and Chevrolet Trail Blazer as well as in seatbacks for the Cadillac DeVille.

  • Mazda. In 2007, Mazda announced the development of a new fabric made entirely from plant fibers to be used for seat covers and door trim in the Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid car. This car also includes a bioplastic for the instrument panel and other interior fittings.

  • Honda. Honda has developed a plant-based fabric that is used for its vehicle interiors including seat covers, door coverings, headliners, floor mats, and other fabric-covered surfaces. The material is both durable and resistant to light and has the potential to reduce energy consumption during production by 10–15%. The fabric is to be used in Honda’s fuel cell vehicles.

  • Goodyear. Goodyear has developed tires using BioIsoprene technology, which is made from a renewable resource. BioIsoprene is a new alternative to replace a petrochemically created ingredient in the manufacture of synthetic rubber with renewable biomass. Goodyear has already been using BioTREND technology, which replaces carbon black with a starch-based (MaterBi) reinforcement. The production of these tires uses less energy.

The report also highlighted some biobased products currently in development; a list necessarily limited by the proprietary nature of the R&D, the authors said.



Tom Watson

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