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Bio-based Lignin Plastics Target Auto Applications in UK-funded Project

Sonichem-led CARMA project aims to utilize sawdust as raw material for auto interiors.

Stephen Moore

February 6, 2024

3 Min Read
Sawdust used for composites in automobiles
Image courtesy of Sonichem

At a Glance

  • Robust and renewable lignin supply chain is key to project success
  • Ultrasonic waves break down hard and soft woods, sugar cane, straws, and grasses into cellulose, natural sugars, and lignin
  • Substitution of imported composite materials targeted

A consortium led by sustainable technology innovator Sonichem has been granted nearly £600,000 ($750,000) in funding from Innovate UK’s Resource efficiency for materials and manufacturing (REforMM) program. The funding will accelerate the development of Sonichem’s proprietary ultrasound technology and the production of renewable, cost-effective alternatives to petrochemicals commonly used in the production of plastics and composites used by the automotive industry.

The CARMA (carbon-neutral agroforestry-derived resins to materials for automotive applications) project will apply Sonichem’s ultrasonic processing technique to automotive applications for the first time. The approach converts sawdust, the biomass by-product from forestry operations, into high-quality lignin. This renewable material will then serve as the basis for bio-based platform chemicals, creating green alternatives to conventional petrochemical-derived materials currently used to produce various vehicle components.

The Sonichem technology and process can convert ligno-cellulosic biomass (including hard and soft woods, sugar cane bagasse, straws, and grasses) safely, efficiently, cleanly, and economically into cellulose, natural sugars, and lignin. Central to the Sonichem process is the use of ultrasound to break the chemical bonds in the feedstock to liberate the cellulose, sugar, and lignin fractions. The fractionated mixture is then processed through recovery units to separate the fractions into high-quality biochemical products.

Project team includes automaker Polestar

This initiative is being undertaken in collaboration with technology innovation catalyst CPI, the National Composites Centre (NCC), Scott Bader, SHD Composites, and Polestar, with each industry leader contributing its own specialized knowledge and expertise. In particular: 

  • CPI will support scale-up of the Sonichem technology;

  • Scott Bader will pioneer the development of high-performance, sustainable composite resin formulations;

  • the NCC, SHD Composites, and Polestar together will explore the potential of these novel materials for automotive interior applications.

The CARMA project aligns with the UK government's focus on resource-efficient, sustainable industrial materials as it aims to significantly reduce the country’s reliance on imported composite materials, which currently amount to approximately £250 to 260 million ($315 to 325 million) annually. The newly awarded funding from Innovate UK will enable the international consortium to establish a robust and renewable lignin supply chain within the UK and accelerate the formulation of sustainable plastics and resins that contribute to steering the automotive industry toward a net-zero future and enhancing the UK’s bioeconomy.

Adrian Black, CEO of Sonichem, said: “We're extremely pleased to have the backing of Innovate UK's REforMM program for this strong industrial consortium. This funding is a catalyst in our quest to offer the automotive industry a sustainable alternative to petrochemical-derived plastics. With Sonichem's ultrasound technology and the collaborative expertise of our partners, we are set to make strides toward a net-zero future and strengthen the UK's bioeconomy.”

David Fishpool, Verification Manager at the NCC, said: “Creating a sustainable future is at the core of our mission. The National Composites Centre is proud to be part of this transformative initiative to accelerate the development of sustainable, cost-effective alternatives to petrochemicals in the production of plastics, resins, and composites for the automotive industry. Our role in this project underscores our commitment to driving innovation and sustainability in the materials sector. We eagerly anticipate contributing our expertise to this vital effort today for a greener tomorrow.”

Valorization of abundant biomass

Steven Brown, group sustainable technology manager at Scott Bader, commented: “Scott Bader is pleased to be part of this exciting project, and we look forward to working with our highly regarded industrial and technology partners to accelerate the valorization of abundant and sustainable biomass toward high-performance materials.”

Nick Smith, Technical Director at SHD Composites, said: “SHD Composite Materials Ltd. is very excited to be working with Sonichem on the next generation of sustainable resins wholly sourced from UK feedstocks as part of our ongoing commitment to reduce the ecological impact of our products. These materials have the potential to be a game changer in the high-value composites market.”

About the Author(s)

Stephen Moore

Stephen has been with PlasticsToday and its preceding publications Modern Plastics and Injection Molding since 1992, throughout this time based in the Asia Pacific region, including stints in Japan, Australia, and his current location Singapore. His current beat focuses on automotive. Stephen is an avid folding bicycle rider, often taking his bike on overseas business trips, and a proud dachshund owner.

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