Efficiency and innovation key component of automotive sector

The weighting game

05 October 2009 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Despite the automotive industry bearing the brunt of the global financial crisis, chemical producers are motoring ahead with innovative new products

THE TREND towards more efficient vehicles, lower emissions and improved fuel consumption has driven weight reduction to the top of the automotive agenda.

Although the ailing sector has been badly affected by the downturn, producers can ill afford to slam the brakes onto investment in new products.

Thanks to the huge bailout schemes that are now supporting some of the world's leading car manufacturers, many are bound by a caveat to make their vehicles even more economical and efficient in the future.

Roughly 50% of fuel is used simply to move the weight of the car, says Roelof Westerbeek, business group director of DSM's Netherlands-headquartered engineering plastics business. By reducing its weight by 10%, it will become 5% more fuel efficient.

To put this into context, fuel consumption a century ago was around 10km/liter (24 miles per US gallon). Now it is 16-17km/liter. "In over a century, fuel efficiency has only gradually improved, so a 5% gain by reducing a car's weight is very significant," he adds.

Currently, around 250-300kg of plastic is used in a car, depending on the size and model. An average mid-sized car weighs around 1,000-1,200kg.

This ratio can certainly be improved upon, Westerbeek says, and the next step could be to replace body panels and ­eventually integrate engineering ­plastics into the frame of the car to provide ­significant weight and emissions savings.

A hybrid structure combining metal and plastic has already been a marked success in the aviation industry.

The prospect of bio-based engineering plastics will be among the most promising developments in the automotive sector over the next five to 10 years, suggests Westerbeek.

After a year and a half of development, July saw the launch of DSM's EcoPaXX, a bio-based, high-performance engineering plastic based on polyamide (PA) 410 (see graphic, point 8). DSM claims EcoPaXX is carbon neutral from cradle to factory gate, as the carbon dioxide (CO2) generated during its production is offset by the CO2 absorbed when growing the castor beans.

Similarly, French specialty firm Rhodia used the 63rd IAA motor show in Frankfurt, Germany, in September as a platform to showcase several new products aimed at reducing CO2 emissions and addressing the EU's Euro 6 regulations to limit pollution.

Jean-Claude Steinmetz, the company's vice president automotive and transportation markets, says that the new technologies could help to reduce CO2 emissions by more than 20g/km.

In addition to its new Technyl Star AFX, a high-flow polyamide plastic, as an alternative to metal components, for example, Rhodia had also developed Zeosil Premium silica for energy-efficient tires, which reduces rolling resistance and helps to cut fuel consumption.

Finally, Rhodia says the introduction of Eolys PowerFlex technology eliminates soot particles for vehicles running on biofuels, without affecting performance.

Perhaps the most significant opportunities, however, lie in the use of tough thermoplastic polycarbonate (PC), says German major Bayer MaterialScience.

For years, PC has been tipped to replace glass in automotive windscreens and sunroofs. It is durable, virtually unbreakable, and lightweight, helping to improve fuel efficiency and performance.

Guenter Hilken, head of the PC business unit, says that a symposium held a few weeks ago in Leverkusen, Germany, saw the shift towards PC use in vehicles win widespread support from all of Europe's major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). PC was first used to manufacture headlamps some 10-12 years ago and it is now used by around 98% of the car industry, he says. One major OEM has suggested that sunroofs and roof modules would also be almost exclusively PC-based within the next decade.

Windscreens, however, may take a little longer because of issues regarding the rigidity of the car's body and safety legislation.

Clearly, sustainability is going to remain the buzzword in the automotive industry in the years ahead; alternative fuels will become commonplace, as will renewable materials.

It may be a tough road ahead, but there are plenty of opportunities on the horizon for the chemical industry.

"The collapse of the automotive industry is actually going to drive a lot of innovation," says Westerbeek.

"It may sound odd with all the problems we have seen, but it is a very exciting time with a lot of innovation going on. The automotive industry is in a transition phase right now that I have never before seen in my 20 years involved in plastics," he says.

Genencor - a division of Danish bio-based ingredients producer Danisco - is collaborating with US tire maker Goodyear to create an alternative for petroleum-based isoprene. BioIsoprene could be used to produce synthetic rubber for tires. Its potential market is estimated at over 770,000 tonnes/year.

Scratched your car? StickerFix from Netherlands-based AkzoNobel is an adhesive strip using patented paint technology that can repair damage. The color of a vehicle's bodywork can be copied and sprayed onto an adhesive vinyl sheet that can be stuck over any damage.

AkzoNobel has also launched its Sikkens Autoclear LV Exclusive high-gloss clearcoat that has self-healing properties when exposed to heat. If the surface gets scratched, the paint "reflows" and heals itself when exposed to heat from the sun.

Rhodia's Zeosil Premium silica for energy-efficient tires, which reduces rolling resistance and helps to cut fuel consumption. For each tonne of CO2 emitted in its production, around 40 tonnes is prevented from being released into the atmosphere, according to the company.

US car manufacturer Ford is working on a biodegradable plastic, polylactic acid (PLA) - made from the sugars in corn, sugarbeets, sugarcane and switch grass. There are many potential applications, from textiles for carpets, floor mats and upholstery to the interior trim. A plastic component made from PLA can biodegrade after its life cycle in 90 to 120 days, versus up to 1,000 years in a landfill for a traditional, petroleum-based plastic.

There is plenty of discussion about how cars of the future will be powered. Electric vehicles are a huge potential market, as are hydrogen and biofuel-powered cars. In the longer term, fuel cells could play a major role.

Polycarbonate (PC) has huge potential in automotive applications and in future, could be used for windscreens rather than glass, says Bayer MaterialScience. PC is already commonplace in vehicles, for example for headlamps, bumpers, airbag covers and instrument panels. PC has been used by many manufacturers to create large roof units

DSM predicts that it may soon be possible to create vehicle bodywork that is made from as much as 80% biorenewable materials. In July, the firm unveiled the resin bodywork for a Formula Zero kart used by the Netherlands' University of Delft team, which was manufactured from 70% biorenewable material. DSM plans to launch this technology later this year into the commercial car market.

Weight reduction is going to play a critical role in the automotive sector in the coming years. Plastic is increasingly being used to replace metal components to shave kilograms off the vehicle's overall weight. Polymers are durable, strong and cost effective without compromising safety. DSM's bio-based engineering plastic EcoPaXX, for example, has a high melting point of 250˚C (482˚F), making it ideal for use under the hood for engines, turbo parts and air intake manifolds. Some 70% of the material is derived from vegetable oil, although DSM hopes this can be increased to 100% in the coming years.

Car seats of the future will still need to be safe and comfortable, but produced with minimal cost and weight, says German major BASF. The company produces various coverings and components for automotive seating, from the leather and fabric finish, to the foams, moisture regulators and safety belt parts.

US-based Dow Chemical meanwhile, has developed RENUVA natural oil-based polyols from natural oils such as soybean oil. It is greenhouse gas-neutral and uses up to 60% fewer fossil fuel resources than conventional polyol technology. The RENUVA technology has various applications, including the foams used for seating, armrests and headrests.

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By: Andy Brice
+44 20 8652 3214

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