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Growing use of natural fibres by automotive manufacturers
5 years, 9 months ago Posted in: Industry News 0


10/17/2011 — Growing environmental awareness and a drive towards sustainable solutions among consumers is driving automakers towards advancements in the development of natural fiber composites, with end-use primarily in automotive interiors. Natural fibres have instrinsic properties – mechanical strength, low weight and low cost – that have made them particularly attractive to the automobile industry. Natural fibre composites provide better thermal and acoustic insulation than fiberglass in automobiles and reduce irritation of the skin and respiratory system. The low density of plant fibres also reduces vehicle weight, reducing fuel consumption. The moulding process consumes less energy than that of fibreglass and produces less wear and tear on the machinery, leading in upto 30% reduction in production costs.

Ford Motor is continuing its research into the use of natural fibres and bio-based plastics, with its latest move being investigating the use of coconut husks as a composite reinforcement. The company is looking at uses for coconut husks or coir to increase the sustainability in vehicles. Ford has used wheat straw as a filler in door trim bins, uses a soybean oil-based urethane foam blend in seats and castor oil blend for instrument panels. The automaker plans to research the use of the husk as reinforcement in plastic parts, which would reduce the amount of plastic needed and lighten part weight. Visible natural fibres would also provide a more natural look to reinforced parts than traditional fillers. Ford is also working with a biodegradable plastic called polylactic acid (PLA). Derived completely from the sugars in corn, sugarbeets, sugarcane, switch grass and other plants, a plastic part made from PLA can biodegrade after its life cycle in 90 to 120 days. Potential automotive applications for PLA are wide ranging, from textile applications for vehicle carpeting, floor mats and upholstery to interior trim pieces that are injection molded. More immediate possibilities include using PLA for nondurable auto applications such as protective wrappings used during vehicle manufacturing and transit. Ford has already made great inroads with other bio-based, reclaimed and recycled materials that are in Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles today.

They include:

  • Soy-based polyurethane foams on the seat cushions and seatbacks, now in production on the Ford Mustang, Expedition, F-150, Focus, Escape, Escape Hybrid, Mercury Mariner and Lincoln Navigator and Lincoln MKS. More than 1.5 mln Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles on the road today have soy-foam seats, which equates to a reduction in petroleum oil usage of approximately 1.5 mln lbs. Ford has expanded its soy-foam portfolio to include the industry’s first application of a soy-foam headliner on the 2010 Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner for a 25% weight savings over a traditional glass-mat headliner.
  • Underbody systems, such as aerodynamic shields, splash shields and radiator air deflector shields, made from post-consumer recycled resins such as detergent bottles, tires and battery casings, diverting between 25 and 30 mln pounds of plastic from landfills.
  • 10% post industrial recycled yarns in seat fabrics on vehicles such as the Ford Escape. The 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan Hybrids feature 85% post industrial yarns and 15% solution-dyed yarns. The 100% usage represents a 64% reduction in energy consumption and a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions.

A new foam made with plant-based castor oil is being used in the Ford Focus in the industry’s first seamless soft-touch instrument panel that’s stronger, better-looking and better on the environment. Castor oil from plants helps deliver sustainable interior foam that reduces petroleum use while improving vehicle craftsmanship. Castor oil is derived from the flowering spurge plant, which is widely grown in tropical regions. The oil does not compete with food sources. The foam is made with 10% renewable content and passes all Ford performance requirements for interior components, and has 36% better tensile strength than material previously used. The foam also takes 43% less time to cure than the previous foam, and scrap is reduced due to improved flow and processing characteristics. BASF estimates that the foam saves more than 5,000 barrels of oil for every 300,000 Focus models produced. Ford plans to incorporate castor oil-based foam across more products globally over time. The company also uses seat foam made from soy, storage bin plastic that incorporates wheat straw, recycled yarn for seat covers, and natural-fibre plastic for interior components.

Ford’s use of a new nylon resin made from recycled carpet saved more than 1.9 mln kgs of waste going into landfills in 2010. Use of the resin, called EcoLon, has amounted to recycling more than 900,000 metres of carpet and reduced oil consumption by more than 1.6 million litres. The material, produced by Wellman Engineering Resins, is used to make cylinder head covers for Ford’s 3 and 5 litre engines. The engine cover is the first automotive product of its kind manufactured from post-consumer recycled nylon. Wellman grinds used nylon carpeting into fibre and recaptures the material through a proprietary and patented process. The resulting product is a high-quality nylon resin that is injection-molded to produce the covers. Over the past several years, Ford has concentrated on increasing its use of non-metal recycled and bio-based materials, including soy foam seat cushions, recycled resins for underbody systems, recycled yarn on seat covers, and natural-fibre plastic for interior components.

The BioCar Initiative is an Ontario government-funded project designed to advance the use of more plant-based materials in the auto and agricultural industries. Ford holds a spot on BioCar’s advisory board and directs some of the project’s automotive research with biomaterials.

Issues on the working block include:

  • Moisture absorption: Natural fiber-reinforced plastics are more likely to absorb moisture over time, causing functional and durability concerns.
  • Odor: Injection molding at high temperatures with a natural fiber-reinforced plastic emits an undesirable odor.
  • Decomposition: PLA is designed to decompose quickly, but researchers want to make sure it will last the lifetime of a vehicle before that decomposition process starts.

Plastic material used to soak up oil in the Gulf of Mexico will be recycled into new auto parts for the Chevrolet Volt. General Motors said it has developed a method to convert an estimated 160 kms of the oil-soaked material off the Alabama and Louisiana coasts and keep it out of landfills. The ongoing project is expected to create enough plastic under-hood parts to supply the Volt for its first year of production. The recycling program will result in the production of more than 45,360 kgs of plastic resin for the vehicle components. The parts, which deflect air around the vehicle’s radiator, are made of 25% boom material and 25% recycled tires from GM’s proving grounds test facility in Michigan. The remainder is a mixture of post-consumer recycled plastics and other polymers. GM worked with several partners throughout the process, including Heritage Environment, which managed the collection on the coast; Mobile Fluid Recovery, which used high-speed drums to remove all absorbed oil and waste water; Lucent Polymers to manipulate the material into a state for plastic die-mold production; and tier-one supplier GDC Inc. which combined the resin with other plastic compounds to produce the components.

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