FocusMegatrend of mobility driving automotive plastic applications

17 July 2012 14:55  [Source: ICIS news]

By Andy Brice

Car productionLONDON (ICIS)--Growing demand in emerging countries will remain a key driver for the automotive market and subsequently help to fuel plastics use in vehicles, chemical producers said on Tuesday.

With rapidly expanding megacities in countries such as China mired with smog and rising traffic emissions, the chemical industry and original equipment manufacturers are working hard to improve vehicles’ efficiency and fuel consumption to meet stringent environmental standards and legislation.

Central to this challenge is the need to reduce the weight of the average car. As a lighter alternative to metals, polymers are becoming increasingly common in the modern motor vehicle and are helping to address these issues.

“The key driver for growth is the general increase in car demand in emerging countries,” said Manfred Rink, head of new business at German major Bayer MaterialScience.

“The game changer could be this trend of urbanisation. Just look at huge cities like Tokyo, Rio or anywhere with 20m-50m people living very closely together; traffic will change considerably in that area in the next 10-20 years.”

Rink said that he expects global car production to reach 77m in 2011, climbing to 110m-120m by 2025.

“We’re seeing a change in behaviour and a dramatic shift to emerging markets, which is something that will lead to a stronger need for light, low cost vehicles,” he added.

Although an American Chemistry Council report last December highlighted that the average vehicle weight rose by 147lbs (0.07 tonnes) – or 3.8% - to 4,039lbs in 2010, coinciding with improved sales and demand, the industry had previously succeeded in helping to shed vehicle weight.

The increased uptake of plastics and their varied application has been a major contributor to these savings. According to the ACC, plastics and composites use in cars has reached 378lbs – up from 286lbs in 2000 and 194lbs in 1990.

“Environmental demands and legislation are the drivers – we as an industry have to find solutions,” said Hartwig Meier, global head of product and application development at Germany’s LANXESS.

“Lightweighting will always be on the agenda in the next decade – there’s an increasing demand for comfort and better safety demands. Carbon dioxide discussions are still ongoing and targets are in place, putting pressure on lightweight solutions,” he added.

“Ten years ago we were talking about one airbag system, now there are cars on the road with 10 different airbags; that means the housing of the airbags the explosion systems all of which adds extra weight to the car. We have to find a solution to take this extra weight out,” said Meier.

Reducing weight not only reduces carbon dioxide emissions but also improves fuel efficiency.  Light, strong and hardwearing, plastic components are increasingly seen as a viable alternative to metal. Combined with other facets such as friction and heat resistance, thermal conductivity and design flexibility, polymers such as polypropylene (PP), polyurethane (PU), polyamide, acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) and polycarbonate (PC) are now used in anything from the seating and panelling, to the glazing, chasis or in the engine.

An example of this is the migration from glass to PC for car headlamps, said Rink, highlighting the various benefits such as design freedom, transparency and reduced weight. Similarly, efforts are being raised to use plastics for the side and rear windows, as well as sunroofs.

“The weight reduction in those areas is very important – a kilo weight reduction in the roof is more important than a kilo saved in the floor,” he said.

The advent of the electric vehicle is also posing many opportunities for plastics producers and is widely expected to be a boon for the sector in the years ahead. With the cars relying on heavy batteries to run, there are increasing efforts to shave pounds off components to offset the additional weight.

By: Andy Brice
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