Use of bio-based auto parts is increasing

Bio-car zooms in

02 June 2010 14:41  [Source: ICB]

The use and development of renewable chemicals in automotive parts is rising

Correction: The ICIS Chemical Business story headlined "Use of bio-based auto parts is increasing" has been corrected in the 13th paragraph to note that EcoPaXX is an engineering plastic, not a resin as originally identified. A corrected story follows.

DEVELOPMENT OF plant-based chemicals in automotive applications has been steadily growing and most of the products are coming from traditional chemical companies.


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Natural fiber-reinforced plastics, vegetable oil-based polyols and polyamides, bio-based polyesters and thermoplastic elastomers are just some of the bio-based materials already being incorporated in several vehicles.

Soybean-based foam, made from soybean polyols, combined with petroleum-based isocyanate, is already being used in the seat cushions and backs of 2010 Ford and Lincoln car models, says Deborah Mielewski, polymer technical leader at US-based Ford Motor.

Ford notes that more than 2m vehicles in its fleet already use the bio-based foam, which reduces petroleum oil use by a total of 1.5m lb (680 tonnes). It plans to convert 100% of its fleet to using the biofoam in the future.

"The soy foam technology has migrated within Ford Motor incredibly fast. In addition, we have soy-based foam in the headliner of the 2010 Escape model," says Mielewski. "All of Ford's seating suppliers currently offer a soy-based polyurethane [PU] foam product."

US companies manufacturing soy polyols include Dow Chemical, Cargill, BioBased Technologies, and Urethane Soy Systems, according to the US soybean cooperative United Soybean Board (USB).

"Soy polyols have become an established urethane chemical for the production of PU," the USB reports. "Technical developments by producers have continued to improve the property profile of the polyols, and allowed their use in a broadening array of applications."

Aside from PU foam, soy- and corn-based polyols are now being used to make coatings, adhesives, sealants and elastomers, says Craig Crawford, president and CEO of the Ontario BioAuto Council, a government-funded group in Ontario, Canada, that provides support for biomaterials ventures and commercialization.

Corn-based polyols, says Crawford, can also be used to make a more durable, scratch-resistant automotive coating.

"The pricing of bio-based chemicals and plastics has been less volatile than petroleum-based products. And in the longer term, they are expected to become cheaper as the technologies mature and production achieves economies of scale," he adds.

Another development is the use of castor oil as an additive in automotive plastic for leather-like seat covers. It is also used to make bio-based nylon that finds applications in heat-­sensitive areas, such as engine compartments, or chemical-sensitive areas, such as fuel lines.

"Some companies are working on new technologies to use bio-based nylons as a replacement for metal gears," Crawford says.

In April, Dutch chemical company DSM introduced a castor oil-based polyamide engineering plastic for automotive application under the name EcoPaXX. The polyamide contains 70% castor oil-based materials, says Nico Gerardu, member of the DSM managing board of directors and responsible for DSM's performance materials cluster.

EcoPaXX, as far as we know, is the first high-heat-resistant engineering plastic which has more than 50% bio-based origin but the same performance profile as its traditional counterpart," says Gerardu.

"Automotive applications of EcoPaXX are mostly in the engine compartment, and so we expect a long approval procedure, which is typical for general engineering plastics, before we can see their commercial use in vehicles," he adds. Commercial sales for EcoPaXX are expected in the first quarter of 2011.

Alongside EcoPaXX, DSM also launched its Palapreg ECO composite resin, which contains 55% renewable-based resources, for use in exterior auto panels. DSM would not disclose the bio-based component for the composite resin as its patent has not yet been published.

Palapreg ECO is the highest bio-based content resin available on the market today, says Gerardu. Both Palapreg ECO and EcoPaXX are involved in final approvals by several customers in the automotive industry.

US-based DuPont says the bulk of its renewable-based polymers - such as its Sorona EP thermoplastic polymers, Hytrel RS thermoplastic elastomers and Zytel RS nylon - are already available to the automotive market today. The bio-based thermoplastic grades were commercially launched in 2009.

"Automotive is one of the several market segments driving toward greater use of high-performance bio-based materials to meet their sustainability challenges," says Richard Bell, global development manager for renewable materials, DuPont Automotive Performance Polymers.

"Clearly, some OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] have taken a leadership role in the use of biopolymers. As more products are developed, we anticipate biopolymers will be used much more broadly in the future," he adds.

Most biopolymers on the market today still cannot meet the high performance requirements of typical automotive applications while being cost-effective, says Bell. "From a marketing and technology perspective, a bio-based product must be cost-effective while maintaining or improving the functionality of the material it is replacing."

"Automotive is one of the several market segments driving toward greater use of high-performance bio-based materials"

Richard Bell, global development manager for renewable materials, DuPont Automotive Performance Polymers 

DuPont's Sorona polymer is currently used in fiber materials for the ceiling surface skin, sun visor and pillar garnish of Japan-based Toyota's new Sai model, launched in December 2009. The biopolymer is a polytrimethylene terephthalate resin, made from a copolymerization of terephthalic acid and DuPont's corn-based 1,3 propanediol.

Toyota's 2009 Camry vehicles also adopted DuPont's Zytel RS bio-based nylon for its radiator end-tank, co-developed by Japanese company DENSO. About 40% of the resin contains castor oil-based materials.

In March 2009, Japan's Mazda Motor began leasing its Mazda Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid vehicle, in which the car seat fabric contains a high-heat-resistant polylactic acid (PLA)-based plastic called BIOFRONT made by Japanese chemical company Teijin.

Other automotive applications for BIOFRONT under development include pillar cover, front panel, door trim, ceiling material and floor mat, says Hideshi Kurihara, general manager, high-performance biomaterials project, for Teijin's new business development group.

"The automotive sector is one of the key markets that the Teijin group focuses on for its entire business expansion," says Kurihara. "BIOFRONT not only overcame conventional bioplastics' problems with hydrolytic degradation in high heat and humidity, it also boasts excellent moldability, resulting in a material that is as durable as polyethylene terephthalate [PET] but without any loss of heat resistance."

When used as a compound with other petroleum-based plastics, BIOFRONT can also produce a very high bio-content ratio compared with other bioplastics, adds Kurihara.

The automotive industry will consume around 1.9m tonnes of engineering plastics this year, according to Frost & Sullivan. Bioplastics are expected to make a small dent into this number in the short term, says Brian Balmer, industry principal, performance materials, at the global consulting firm.

"Already, natural fiber-reinforced plastics are getting preferred in the interiors of cars, both from their production and economic efficiency points of view," says Balmer. "The next step for designers, therefore, will be to use more bioplastics in the interiors of passenger vehicles."

Late last year, Ford said it became the first automaker to use wheat straw as a plastic filler in the third-row plastic bins on the 2010 Ford Flex model.

The material was developed by US plastics compounder A. Schulman and the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, as part of the Ontario BioCar Initiative, a partnership between Canadian universities and companies interested in developing sustainable car materials.

"Even though these bins are a small component, they save about 20,000lb/year of petroleum and reduce CO₂ emissions by 30,000lb/year," says Mielewski. The natural fiber replaces energy-inefficient glass fibers commonly used to reinforce plastic parts.

"We have to entertain the thought of bio-replacement in baby steps, looking at every aspect of a car that could be green. One day, I hope to see the world of automotive plastics go totally compostable, removing petroleum by 100%," adds Mielewski.

Read Doris de Guzman's Green Chemicals blog

By: Doris de Guzman
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