Canadian automotive supplier Magna International Inc. is exploring potential automotive applications for a bioplastic made from byproducts of sugar production.
Magna, headquartered in Aurora, Ontario, has signed a cooperation agreement with Italian bioplastics company Bio-on srl to develop automotive-compatible products from Bio-on's polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA)-based bioplastic as an alternative to conventional plastics.
The project was launched in response to a call for sustainable solutions from Magna's customer base, said Dieter Fahrländer, vice president of advanced engineering for Magna's Interiors operating unit. Magna has worked with bioplastics in the past, but sought a solution that did not rely on a food source, he said.
“We searched for a long time for material that is in no way [bound] to the food chain,” Fahrländer said. “Because if you are talking about oil or corn or something like that, that is always really a setback to our customers, because they do not want to touch the food chain.”
Because Bio-on's product is made from a waste material — the syrup left over when sugar beets are used to make commercial-grade sugar — it's a more sustainable solution, Fahrländer said.
“In this case we are operating within the waste of the sugar production, which is also available in a really high yearly tonnage, so on the one side we have enough of it… and on the other side we found now one solution that does not affect the food chain,” he said.
PHA, a bacterially synthesized polymer, is produced from the fermentation of sugars. The bacteria used by Bio-on digest sugars in sugar beet molasses and produce PHAs, which are extracted and dried. The result is a white powder that can be further processed into products with properties comparable to objects made with traditional plastics, said Marco Astorri, Bio-on CEO. The bioplastic also is biodegradable.
Bio-on's PHA has been used for a variety of things including home furnishings, mobile phones and food packaging, Marco said. Magna's first job is to develop an automotive-grade resin, and to test the material in processes including thermoforming and injection molding.
Fahrländer said the company will pursue interior automotive applications first, and eventually expand to exterior products.
But with added sustainability comes added cost, at least for now.
“To reduce the carbon footprint of the car production, that is our main goal. The problem is the cost, and I think for the next year we will always have the problem with the cost for the biomaterials… so that is something we have to overcome,” Fahrländer said.
Testing will take place at Magna's facility in Liberec, Czech Republic.