CONCORD, Ont.—Flax, hemp, rice and soy aren’t just ingredients on the menu for an Olympic athlete. They’re also what his car will be made of in the future.
Some automakers are already using this so-called biocontent in their vehicles, and Canadian biocomposite developers are helping them to achieve their green car goals.
Sylvain Labonté is team leader of Advanced Polymer Composites, Automotive and Surface Transportation, at the National Research Council Canada (NRC) in Ottawa. He works with the Concord, Ont.-based Exteriors and Interiors unit of automotive supplier Magna International on a joint project called the Magna-NRC Composites Centre of Excellence (MNCCE) to develop biocomposite technology for the automotive industry.
“The work at the centre is focused on the development of fibre-reinforced plastics,” says Labonté. “Work has been done using different combinations of polymers and fibres in search for the best combination of performance, weight reduction and cost.”
Conventional thermoplastic materials such as polypropylene and Poly Vinyl Chloride—commonly known as PVC—and others derived from petrochemical processes are being successfully replaced with bio-based polymers made out of biocontent such as flax and hemp biofibres, Labonté says.
Potential uses include: interior car parts such as instrument panels and trim; exterior body parts such as hardtops, sunroof components, door panels, hoods, running boards, bumpers and tailgates; and structural parts such as bumper frames, seat frames and floors.
Toyota is a big believer in such bio-based plastics, which it already uses in scuff plates, headliners, seat cushions, sun visors, pillar covers, trunk liners and door trims.
“Ecological plastic emits less CO2 during a product’s lifecycle than plastic made solely from petroleum,” says Toyota Canada director Sandy DeFelice, based in Toronto. “It also helps reduce petroleum use.”
CO2 emissions from the production of these plastic components are reduced by as much as 20 per cent compared with conventional plastic manufacturing, she says.
“Several Toyota vehicles including many of our hybrid models, such as the Toyota Prius and Lexus CT 200h, contain plant-based ecoplastics,” says DeFelice. “Other Lexus models such as the GS and CT use bamboo for components such as the steering wheel—world’s first—and speakers.”
She says Toyota plans to replace 20 per cent of the conventional plastics in its vehicles with bioplastics by 2015.
“Another percentage will be based on synthetic polymers but reinforced with materials from biomass such as wood fibres,” says the MNCCE’s Labonté.
Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions (AI Bio) in Edmonton has been working on a project to integrate wood fibre into auto parts with Magna Exteriors and Interiors and its partner, the Centre for Research and Innovation in the Bio-Economy (CRIBE), also based in Concord, Ont. It has entered the second stage of its research, to be completed by the end of the year.
“We are testing a variety of wood fibres,” says AI Bio CEO Stan Blade. “[Wood] is a remarkable fibre. It’s stronger, greener, recyclable and arguably cheaper. We can deliver it at a lower cost than other materials.”
Blade says wood is ideal for use in car parts because it is lighter than traditional petroleum-based materials, which helps automakers cut greenhouse gas emissions and meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.
According to Labonté, “For each 100 kilograms saved, fuel consumption decreases by 0.5 litres per 100 kilometres.”
Wood fibre is also more sustainable than petroleum-based fibre, says Blade.
“All the wood is coming from certified forests. The government of Alberta is careful about annual cuts,” he says. “The forest companies have nowhere near the allowable cuts. Thirty-five million hectares can provide a sustainable amount of wood.”
Ford has been a pioneer in bio-based car parts since Henry Ford used soybean and hemp in the body of his 1941 vehicle, known as both the Soybean car and the Hemp body car. Today, Ford uses parts made out of soy, rice and wood in many of its vehicles, says Dr. Ellen Lee, Ford’s technical expert in materials engineering, based in Dearborn, Mich.
Soy-based foam is used in all seatbacks and cushions in every Ford vehicle in North America and in 75 per cent of all headrests, says Lee. “One of the other innovations is rice hulls used in a bracket in a plastic part in the 2014 F-150.”
This month, Ford began using cellulose fibre-based reinforced polypropylene in the armrest reinforcement of the 2014 Lincoln MKX. The wood fibre is seven per cent lighter than petroleum-based fibre, with a weight savings of about half a kilogram, says Lee. “We would like to migrate this to all of our vehicles.”
Ford also plans to use the biofibre for the entire centre console, which would would mean an additional weight savings of 3.6 kg.
Lee says she hopes to replace all of the plastic and polymeric materials — about 10 per cent or 136 kg — in Ford vehicles with biofibres by 2015.
Helping to make that possible is the BioComposites Group (BCG) of Drayton Valley, Alta. Formed in 2013, BCG is a commercial spin-off company of Tekle Technical Services (TTS Inc.), which has been involved in the research and development of bio-based products such as engineered fibre mats, biocomposite panels, structural insulated panels, fibre cement and fibre plastic since 1998.
“They’re bio-degradable, as strong and lighter, so fuel economy is better,” Dan Madlung, CEO of BCG, says of the wood, flax and hemp biofibres the company is using to replace traditional materials such as glass fibre and polyester in carpeting, dashboards, door panels, headliners, package trays, seatbacks and other interior automotive parts.
BCG recently partnered with Techstyles, a Bingham Farms, Mich.-based company specializing in automotive interiors, to help bring its products to automakers.
While the future of biocomposites seems promising, there are still some roadblocks.
“Many challenges remain [such as] moisture absorption, odour, fogging, aging due to sun exposure and variability in performance of raw materials,” says Labonté. “But our researchers are working on those challenges and are confident to provide solutions that will be acceptable to industry.”
DeFelice is convinced that the performance and durability of ecoplastics used in Toyota components “are equal or better than if we had used traditional petroleum-based plastics” and that “ecological plastic adequately meets the heat resistance and shock resistance demands of vehicle interiors.”
Consumers also have to be convinced that biofibres are just as good as traditional materials, says Labonté.
“The end user sometimes sees such products as being of lower quality. But with time and with enough long-term data, this perception will change,” he says. “The industry has to educate the end users and prove/demonstrate that, when well used, they are just as good as more traditional materials.”
But are we taking food out of the mouths of our aspiring athletes by using flax, hemp, rice and soy in the manufacture of bio-based car parts? According to Labonté, the athletes can rest easy.
“In our research, we use non-food grade biomass, so we do not impede on the food production chain.”
Patricia Cancilla is a Toronto-based automotive and business writer