You may have heard a few things about the ``green'' car phenomena during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
There was talk about plug-in hybrid vehicles, all-electric sports cars, on-board generators and hydrogen fuel cells.
But beyond the hype is a simple fact: The road to the green car future is paved with plastics.
``This is a fantastic opportunity for us,'' said David Dyke, advanced engineering manager for composites molder Meridian Automotive Systems Inc. of Allen Park, Mich.
Automakers that need to shave weight off of cars to boost mileage performance have more reasons to use plastics now than any time in a generation. Clever plastic packaging can help hide hybrid batteries while the next generation of batteries - lithium-ion - uses plastics for binder materials, in separating films and housings.
Even the electricity connecting the batteries and the wheels will run through cables wrapped in engineered plastics while biodiesel and other new fuel blends also will require special resin blends for hoses and tanks.
``We're talking to a number of strategic suppliers,'' said Lou Rhodes, president of Chrysler LLC's in-house electronic research group ENVI.
Those suppliers include battery makers as well groups that can guide the company on composite body structures to cut weight, he said following a Jan. 14 news conference at the show.
Both Japan's Toyota Motor Corp. and Detroit-based General Motors Corp. have pledged to have a plug-in hybrid on the road in the next two years, with GM focusing its energy on turning out something similar to its Volt concept, which first debuted in 2007.
Toyota added to its hybrid potential with the ABAT truck concept debuting at the auto show, which featured not only battery power but carbon-fiber body structures.
Chrysler, based in Auburn Hills, Mich., like other automakers is not ready to commit to a date yet, but knows it has to be green to survive. So as the press circled around him following the introduction of Chrysler's electric-powered concept cars, Rhodes jumped from discussions on the advances in lithium-ion batteries to lightweight composites including carbon fiber and then to soy-based urethane foams for seats.
``It's evolving technology and it seems like every week there's something new,'' he said.
That evolution is exactly what plastics suppliers are hoping for to increase their presence.
Dyke led a benchmark study with the Automotive Composites Alliance looking at how composites can help automakers make better hybrid vehicles.
Composites can reduce the weight of a hood by up to 40 percent and a rear trunk compartment by up to 50 percent, the study showed.
In addition, composites make more sense in low volumes - like a hybrid which may sell 20,000-40,000 vehicles, compared with 80,000 or more - because they allow carmakers to give hybrids a different look than their nongreen competition. Part of the attraction of a Toyota Prius is that it looks unique. It becomes a status symbol, Dyke said.
A standard sedan with an extra decal advertising it as a hybrid will not get the same attention as one with a specially designed hood or fenders that present a different profile, Dyke said.
``The public want the green cars,'' he said. ``They want the technology.''
The new investments in electric-powered cars and hybrids also opens the possibility that carmakers may change the architecture of the cars themselves, giving plastics a better chance to compete against traditional materials like steel and aluminum, said Jim Kolb, vice president for automotive of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va..
``They're going to have to look at how they build the car,'' he said.
Just consider the load floor of a car, now typically made of steel. A hybrid or electric vehicle must be designed to accommodate battery stacks. Plastics offer more flexibility in designing those load floors, he said.
So composites could play a part in new body structures. Sabic Innovative Plastics of Pittsfield, Mass., has been working with automakers on concept cars using recycled PET in body panels - offering carmakers a chance to lighten up while also improving their recycling record. Its resins made up the body panels on GM's Volt and Ford Motor Co.'s new Lincoln MKT concept.
DuPont, Dow Chemical Co. and BASF AG also are working with automakers on plastics made from renewable resources, ACC's Kolb said.
Plastics even can play a part in standard internal combustion engines, Dyke said. The new U.S. federal mileage standards will require a Corporate Average Fuel Economy of 35 miles per gallon by 2020 across the automakers' fleet of cars. That means everything must boost its mileage.
``That legislation is going to be the biggest help for us in breaking the paradigm in the industry,'' Dyke said.