Bio-sourced materials: Is this car organic?
The average car contains up to 400 pounds of plastic. Yet, making vehicles greener is generally framed as a question of fuels and emissions. The production of vehicles is resource-intensive, and many commonly used materials are petroleum-based and non-renewable. Researchers are working to change this by developing new bio-sourced materials to reduce and eventually replace petroleum. At Movin’On Summit 2018, François Masson, Recycling business manager at Michelin and Deborah Mielewski, Senior technical leader of sustainable materials and advanced materials at Ford teamed up to discuss how they promote sustainable materials in their companies.
“If we want to create a new generation of wealth, we need to rethink our production models, to invent new ways of working that are less dependent on raw materials.”
– François Masson, Michelin
A strong case for bio-sourced materials
Companies such as Michelin and Ford are looking toward bio-sourced materials as a way to reduce dependence on fossil-fuel derivatives. Using natural materials in vehicle production isn’t new, but the spike in oil prices in the late 2000s added a new urgency to the task. Deborah Mielewski leads the team within Ford developing new plant-based substitutes. From soy to agave to tomato fibre, they are working on turning all sorts of plants into composite materials for use in the auto industry. Learn more about Ford’s plant-based materials research in their Renewable materials report.
Watch the video Ford, Jose Cuervo to Make Car Parts from Agave from the Wall Street Journal.
According to Deborah Mielewski “Bio-sourced materials offer something for everybody. They are renewable, they give farmers extra revenue sources and allow us to reuse by-products. They are also lighter, helping improve energy efficiency. It’s an awesome world of possibilities, we just have to do the work.”
From farm to car
Here are some materials made from plants or recycled objects:
wheat straw and agave fibre → reinforcement in composite materials
soy oil → foam for seats
coconut hair → trunk mats
tree cellulose → composite armrest consoles
rice hulls and flax → insulation for electric components
PET bottles → upholstery fabrics
Bio-sourced materials are promising, but there are challenges to tackle before they achieve widespread uptake:
- Developing the technology: Researchers have made a lot of progress, but it takes time, effort and lots of trial and error to come up with consumer-ready products.
- Overcoming a culture of secrecy: Research and development in the automotive sector has traditionally been secretive. It will take a concerted effort to break old habits and find a new balance between collaboration and competition.
- Getting it to consumers: In the words of Deborah: “getting it over the hump”—taking the technology from lab to product, and making its use commonplace.
How do we get there?
- Improve regulation: Governments have an important role to play by setting ambitious goals, imposing standards, funding research and providing incentives to industry and consumers.
- Create a culture of open innovation: Industry leaders must work together to create the supply-chains, ecosystems and cross-speciality collaborations we need to develop new technologies.
- Include education: Universities and other educational institutions can be hubs of innovation, creating new expertise and producing more eco-conscious citizens.
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