Chemicals expand offerings for greener automobiles

Green Autopia

17 December 2007 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Automakers go beyond alternative sustainable fuels to achieve the consumers' dream of creating a clean green driving machine

Doris De Guzman/New York

THE RACE is on to develop the ultimate green car, driven by consumer concerns for the environment, and rising fuel costs.

Most of the current focus is on the development of cheaper alternative sources of energy, as well as reducing toxic emissions from auto exhausts. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), however, are also looking beyond fuels and into using renewable-based or recyclable materials for various car parts and auto products.

Ford Motor is already incorporating 5% soybean-based polyols in foams used in seat backs and seat cushions in its 2008 Mustang sports car. Ford is looking to replace 40% of petroleum-based polyols with soy polyols, which the company says will not only help reduce its environmental footprint, but also result in as much as $26m/year (€18m/year) in cost savings.

"It has been Ford's long-term goal to replace some of the petroleum-based materials with plant-based renewable materials," says Deborah Mielewski, polymer technical leader, research and advanced engineering at Ford. "The ultimate goal is to reduce the environmental footprint of our vehicles."

Ford's partners on the project include the United Soybean Board (USB), auto parts supplier Lear, Urethane Soy Systems, and Bayer MaterialScience.

"The move by Ford to replace petroleum in auto interiors with soybean oil is revolutionary," says a USB official. "There are industry talks that other automotive companies will be adopting this technology. Ford and others are also researching ways to incorporate low-cost soybean meal into composites to lower manufacturing costs, while reducing a car's weight and improving its strength."


Mazda's Premacy RE Hydrogen Hybrid, which is scheduled to come out next year in Japan, is touting a 100% plant-based stereo complex polylactic acid (scPLA) fiber for car seat covers and interior trim. The heat-resistant biofiber was developed by Teijin under the trademark BIOFRONT.

Aside from the bio-based fabric, Teijin says it has also developed technologies to reduce fuel consumption such as weight-saving polycarbonate (PC) resins as substitutes for steel and glass in hoods and roofs and modified rubber ingredients to lower rolling resistance for tires.

"Since the establishment of the Teijin Global Environmental Charter in 1992, we have continued to pursue our business activities with an emphasis on the environment," says Teijin spokesman Yoshihito Usami. "Our focus on automotive, energy and environment is part of our key strategies for the company and is highly compatible with the technologies that we offer."

Sulfron, a modified aramid-based rubber compound, is Teijin's latest offering in the tire market, says Rabin Datta, commercial manager for tires at Teijin Aramid. Adding Sulfron to the tire compound is said to result in 15-20% less rolling resistance, thereby reducing fuel consumption by 3-5%. It also extends the lifetime of a tire by 15%.

"Tires play a critical role in addressing fuel consumption," says Datta. "Marketing an innovative product like Sulfron makes us proud and is equally rewarding as the majority of tire accounts responses are very optimistic. Commercialization is expected to happen as most of them are either in field ­trials or at the advanced stage of approval."

Low energy-consumption tires are also a focus in the development of Rhodia'sZeosil high-performance silica, which is being used as reinforcing charge in the tread area, says Jean-Claude Steinmetz, vice president, automotive and transportation.

"Rolling resistance, which is responsible for nearly 30% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, is a key element for all car and tire makers to optimize tire energy consumption and thus vehicle fuel consumption," says Steinmetz.


The use of fuel-saving automotive plastics as replacement for metal and glass in car parts is the latest hit in car shows around the world.

Steel accounts for two-thirds of current vehicle weight, says Rhodia's Steinmetz. Around 100kg of plastic can replace an average 300kg of steel, he adds.

"We estimate that the weight of cars can have an impact of more than 30% on their CO2 emissions," says Steinmetz. "In recent years, vehicle weight has been constantly increasing due to the integration of more and more equipment to improve comfort and safety. A reduction of only 10% in weight can lead to a reduction in CO2 emissions of more than 16grams/mile."

Rhodia says it is looking at reducing CO2 with its weight-saving polyamide-based Technyl plastics for the replacement of steel and aluminum in body parts, structural or under-the-hood components.

Other suppliers are taking the use of plastics to the next level, either by using recycled polymers as raw materials or by making cars recyclable.

For Borealis, the ultimate vision of a green car would be one with the lowest fuel consumption and that is easy to recycle, says vice president for automotive Paul Turner.

"Polypropylene [PP] compounds can accomplish this vision, particularly in areas like structural carriers (interior/exterior) and aesthetic body panels," he says. "We are heavily working today to address this vision and our recent achievements speak for themselves in terms of feasibility."

One of Borealis' recent developments is its fully recyclable thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO) compound, Daplen ED230HP. The compound replaces a polycarbonate polybutylene terephtalate (PC/PBT) blend traditionally used in exterior body panels, tailgates and hoods.

German car manufacturer Smart is currently using the TPO compound on its fortwo minicar, which, Borealis says, is the world's first commercialized car to have full body panels manufactured from PP. The line is being marketed by Daimler Group.

SABIC Innovative Plastics is not only offering recyclable plastic for car parts, but has also developed raw materials from scrap polymers. SABIC's special upcycled plastics Valox iQ PBT and Xenoy iQ resins - blends of PC and PBT - are expected to be seen on certain car parts by next year.

"The auto industry has been very enthusiastic on the idea of helping clean the environment of scrap by creating these plastic raw materials," says Derek Buckmaster, global market director for SABIC Innovative Plastics automotive exterior body and glazing unit. "We can replace about 850kg of petroleum-based materials with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) scrap for every ton of Valox iQ material we produce."


Other companies are offering bio-based lubricants and motor oils environmentally friendly coatings and additives and other solutions that help lower fuel use and improve car emissions.

Ciba Specialty Chemicals points out that its plastic stabilizers help facilitate the use of plastics in cars instead of steel while its additives for biolubricants and biofuels support formulations for renewable materials.

The company is also looking to develop biomaterials for automotive coatings as well as pigments designed to reflect infrared radiation, which helps lower heat build-up in cars, reducing the need for air conditioning.

"The main challenge is that automotive applications are quite demanding," says Tom Landuyt, head of new products and technologies for Ciba's marketing center transportation. "Environmentally sustainable products must therefore meet high performance requirements on numerous criteria and they must also be economical."

Some consumers are still distrustful of green automotive products because of their poor performance in the past, says Mathew Zuckerman, president, CEO and cofounder of Menlo Park, California-based Green Earth Technologies (GET). "The challenge is to convince car owners that these products have undergone rigorous testing and are safe for vehicles."

GET recently introduced a line of green automotive products such as tallow-based motor oil and vegetable oil-based car cleaners. "Automotive performance and appearance products target one of the biggest sources of backyard pollution - changing your oil and washing your car - so this is a perfect industry to target in terms of making a marked difference," says Zuckerman.


What's old...

 is new again

AUGUST 13, 1941 - The first plastic-bodied car mostly made from agriculture-based raw materials was unveiled in Dearborn, Michigan, US, by Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company.

Dubbed the Soybean Car, it weighed 1,000 lbs less than the average steel car and was said to be Ford's dream of combining the transportation and agriculture industries, as well as trying to reduce costs caused by the shortage of metal at that time.

"The plastic, which was invented by chemist Robert Allen Boyer, was made out of a formulation of soybeans, wheat, cotton, hides, plus a few imported, now hard-to-get ingredients such as cork, rubber, tung oil and ramie - formerly used to wrap Egyptian mummies," reported Time magazine in its August 1941 article.

At that time, Ford was also developing soybean fiber for use in auto upholstery, according to a September 1941 article by ICIS Chemical Business predecessor Oil, Paint and Drug Reporter. "Considerable progress has been made in the development of the fiber which is spun from pure protein extracted from soybean oil," Donald Ramseyer, plant superintendent of Ford's soybean enterprises said in the article.

The Soybean Car did not make it into commercial production, with the outbreak of World War II, according to the Benson Ford Research Center. The project was reportedly abandoned as the company's energy was diverted toward war, and later on, war recovery efforts.

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