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Monday, 28 May 2012 19:31

Auto meets agriculture to replace plastics

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Auto meets agriculture to replace plastics PHOTO: Joe Boomgaard

HOLLAND — Automobiles of today have been described as computers on wheels.

They have back-up cameras, seat warmers, cylinder deactivation technology, antilock brakes and sophisticated electronic stability control systems.

With all that embedded technology, it might come as a surprise that many automakers and their suppliers are turning to soy, corn, coconut, hemp and linseed for feedstock materials for various parts throughout the vehicle.

A March report from the Center for Automotive Research found the automotive supply chain is increasingly looking to bio-based materials as an alternative to petroleum-based or non-renewable components.

The report singled out the Great Lakes region for its "significant potential for the expansion of bio-based automotive parts and components manufacturing," partially because a base of suppliers in the area have been working on this new technology for many years and because many of the favorable feedstock materials are grown in the region.

Think of it as a convergence of the automobile industry and agriculture.

The average vehicle has 300 to 400 pounds of plastic on the interior and exterior combined, and suppliers are investigating a number of avenues to reduce and replace the petroleum content and lower the carbon footprint for each vehicle, said Fran Elenbaas, senior manager for new technologies, technology and advanced development in the Automotive Experience division at Johnson Controls Inc.

JCI conducts much of its work on bio-based materials at its Holland location, where Elenbaas is based.

Many vehicles already contain bio-based materials in them, she said, but the parts are hidden in the headliner or armrests and other pieces of interior trim. JCI's EcoCor, a moldable mat product with polypropylene mixed with natural fibers, has been in production since the 1990s.

The Holland-based team focuses on near-term applications of the technology, as well as "running changes" when traditional materials are replaced mid-run with natural fiber products. To execute those changes, all parts need to be prototyped, manufactured and validated.

"There's a stronger pull from customers in Europe than there is in North America," said Tim Spahr, advanced material and process development engineer in JCI's Automotive Experience division. "There's a different mindset in Europe than there is in North America, and certainly more legislation."

Elenbaas said the consistency of new bio-based materials offer a distinct advantage over recycled parts, which often have variable quality and unreliable recycling streams if they are not controlled and sourced from offal from within a plant.

Even natural fibers have variability in patterns or textures, so most are used in non-Class A surfaces.

One key use for natural fibers is to help reduce weight from the vehicles. EcoCor has about a 20-percent weight savings versus an injection-molded part, said Tony Pokorzynski, advanced material and process development engineer in JCI's Automotive Experience division.

"You're not just throwing a filler in there," Pokorzynski said. "You have to create a composite structure."

And while automakers are pushing for more natural materials, they simultaneously demand that the bio-based parts perform exactly as the pieces they are replacing. Those demands force the suppliers like JCI to have to put a great deal of effort into the design and validation phases, Spahr said.

To help in that process, Elenbaas said JCI has leveraged its core competencies and looked outside the company for strategic partners in academia and industry that are working on new technologies. Often, the JCI team can offer the facilities and equipment that smaller companies need to test the scale-up of new products or processes.

Look local

To get the most bang out of bio-based materials, suppliers also need to pay attention to the local availability of those materials and produce parts with materials from within the region. That poses another challenge as automakers go to global platforms. In some cases, shipping a natural material across the globe because the material isn't available locally reduces or eliminates the beneficial carbon footprint attributes with bio-based materials.

That's led JCI to look at making parts out of different bio-based materials depending on local availability. Some OEMs, however, don't want to take a risk on changing the material, so they'll ship it in from other parts of the world to maintain that one material source, Spahr said.

"That's been a big challenge," he said. "We've had some programs that wanted a global material. We can do that in plastics, but it's more of a challenge in natural fibers. But some of the customers are looking for natural fibers, so if there's a way to make it work, we try to."

And then there's the cost of the bio-based materials. The materials are sourced from plants, which depend on the weather and their availability and cost can fluctuate depending on the growing conditions.

"Automakers want to be receptive to it, but sometimes cost pressures keep them from it," Spahr said.

Natural fibers still lack the economies of scale of the ubiquitous plastics in the automotive supply chain, and the cost to develop the new technologies must also get factored into the price.

"It all depends on the price of oil," Spahr said of the price competitiveness of the bio-based products. "As the price of oil goes up, then there is more and more pull for natural fiber materials, both from a petroleum-replacement perspective as well as a weight-reduction perspective. The best way to reduce carbon footprint is to use lightweight material. The amount of carbon put out by the car through its 10- to 15-year life is huge in comparison to the amount required to make the material."

The next steps for the bio-based materials industry, according to the JCI team, are for suppliers to continue replacing steel parts, which drive down costs of bio-based materials and increase their adoption, as well as to begin the adoption of non-petroleum resins, perhaps from sugarcane.

Spahr said another advancement will be for suppliers to perfect making more three-dimensional products with bio-based material. Currently, parts with bio-based materials can be formed into shapes, but they lack depth and support ribs that can be achieved with an injection-molded part, he said.

"Creative ways to get around that problem are going to be the big thing in the future," Spahr said. "We've looked at some materials that we can injection mold, but they're still in their infancy right now."



Read 2683 times Last modified on Thursday, 02 August 2012 16:39

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