Automakers are continuing their push into more use of natural fibers and bioresins for car parts, but executives said they are most interested in seeing how traditional plastics will develop from nontraditional sources.
Nylon, polypropylene, polyester and other resins made from natural sources such as sugar cane — both those being tested now and those in limited production — hold out the promise of a less-expensive and stable source of raw material for plastics, but with a familiar product for end users.
“We really think this is the future for a lot of bio-based materials we'll see,” said Angela Harris, a research engineer in Ford Motor Co.'s research and innovation center, during a discussion on eco-friendly materials at Ward's Auto Interiors Conference, held recently in Dearborn.
Both Dearborn-based Ford and Toyota Motor Corp., based in Toyota City, Japan, have been touting their use of renewable products in their vehicles, with Ford noting that it uses a soybean-based foam blend in nearly all of its seats, and is expanding into foam for headrests and headliners.
Toyota, meanwhile, is using soy and castor-bean foam blends along with polylactic acid-based plastics for interior parts in key cars like the Prius and other hybrids. It has given itself a goal of moving toward bio-based materials in all of its “touchable surfaces” in the interior, said Mark Bacchus, group manager of the organic material application engineering group at Ford's technical center in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“But pretty much all bio-based materials have some weakness,” Bacchus added.
The first-generation PLA-based resins have a tendency to break down over the life of a car, and cannot take the extreme temperatures. Toyota uses PLA blends to bring the application up to standards.
“We don't want to sacrifice quality and safety, so we have to find applications where it will work,” he said.
Like Harris, he said the best answer may be in resin companies' research into ways to use natural sugars from plants as the starting point for chemical processing, rather than petroleum or natural gas.
“The ultimate [development] would be a natural-fiber filler with a bio-based resin,” Harris said.
Bacchus noted, however, that although the carmakers are major companies, they cannot afford to research every development on their own. The auto industry will look to build on research from other industries as well, such as packaging and consumer products as well as its own supply base.
“We only have so many eyes and ears to look into technology,” he said. “We rely on the [suppliers] to do a lot of leg work too.”