Natural fiber composites are moving into the mainstream for the auto industry, with automakers and suppliers finding more variations of bio-composites and more places to use them.
Since the early applications in a few hidden parts like door substrates, natural fiber has started to turn up in places where car owners will touch and interact with it, and even see the natural reinforcement. Now automakers and suppliers alike are pondering how much further the composites will go.
Interior specialists already have debuted concepts that use a highly polished natural fiber composite as visible trim, similar to the way wood grain was used traditionally though the composite would provide both decorative and structural elements. At the same time, soy-based urethanes are turning up inside car seat cushions, and nylon using a blend with oil from castor bean plants is showing up in under-the-hood parts.
Ford Motor Co.'s 2010 Flex, however, puts natural material at car buyers' fingertips. A. Schulman Inc.'s AgriPlas resin, made with polypropylene and 20 percent wheat straw, is being used in the third-row storage bins of the Flex, where flecks of the straw are slightly visible against the black surface.
Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford could easily use this as a test case to bolster its use in future vehicles marketed toward environmentally conscious buyers, said Ellen Lee, a Ford technical expert in plastics research.
It's going to have more and more acceptance, she said.
The AgriPlas bin is 10 percent lighter than an all PP part and Ford estimates that using wheat straw in place of resin in the bin will reduce its petroleum use by 20,000 pounds per year and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30,000 pounds per year.
Our group here in research at Ford is looking at ways of using renewable materials and natural materials in more ways, Lee said.
Unlike other natural composite structures that rely on flax, kenaf or other crops grown specifically for industrial purposes, AgriPlas uses what is essentially a waste product from wheat production, developed by Fairlawn, Ohio-based Schulman with the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, through its Ontario BioCar Initiative, which sought ways to use more plant-based materials in auto and agricultural vehicles.
Ford got involved with the development fairly early, attracted by the natural fiber content offering lighter weight while using less resin, and the fact that it would be easy to translate to other regions.
Wheat can be grown in almost any climate, Lee noted.
Ford's early development helped to ensure that the finished resin would easily meet the carmaker's requirements for moisture and odor control from the straw, as well as be easy to use in existing production.
Molder International Automotive Components LLC was able to get AgriPlas up and running on its injection molding presses within two months, said Rose Ryntz, director of advanced engineering for Dearborn-based IAC.
Wheat straw has been used as a natural fiber reinforcement in plastic lumber, Ryntz said. Ford, Schulman and the development team have been able to translate that success into a product that the auto industry can use and expand.
It's another source of biomass products and we're always looking for other sources, she said.
Ford executives are not talking about specific future uses for AgriPlas or other natural fiber composites, but it will expand, Lee said.
AgriPlas is far from the only resin making inroads with a combination of natural and traditional sources. Soybean oil resin blends have been in urethane foam seating used by a variety of automakers, including Ford, which estimates it has used soy-blend urethane in more than 1.5 million cars.
Castor bean oil is going into nylon resin blends used in under-the-hood parts.
BASF AG recently introduced Acrodur for natural fiber thermoset composites, opening the potential for more structural plastics with an environmental element to them.
What takes you beyond cup holders is when you start dealing with structural parts, said Don Rosato of consulting group PlastiSource Inc. of Concord, Mass.
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