That has certainly been the case with the California Air Resources Board''s (CARB) new fuel-emission standards, which are affecting plastic fuel-system material choices and technologies in everything from cars to boats and lawnmowers. Thermoforming sheet stock supplier Spartech (St. Louis, MO) sees opportunity where others have seen a headache, promoting its Low E Poly ("e" for emissions) multilayer extruded sheet as a thermoforming solution for the marketplace. As part of its Green Initiative, Spartech has invested $15 million in two European production lines used to make sheet for fuel tanks for the Volkswagen Passat, which are twin-sheet thermoformed by Visteon in Europe.
By applying twin-sheet thermoforming, where two halves are formed and then brought together for hollow geometries normally achieved in rotomolding or blowmolding, Visteon is able to enclose ancillary fuel-system components like gauges and pumps within the tank. Outside the tank, additional connections for such systems present leakage opportunities; inside the tank, the systems are fully contained.
"Our customers are out banging on the doors of all the OEMs," Spartech''s Director of Marketing Howard Kenney says, "saying basically the thermoforming channel has a solution."
The sheet stock for VW is supplied from Spartech''s Donchery, France operation in the Ardennes region, and Kenney estimates that the company will run 15 to 20 million lb of the material this year. Spartech has also added Low E capabilities at its Portage, WI plant, with plans for this output to target nonautomotive products in the agricultural, motor sports, and marine markets, among others.
Kenney says one customer has three programs being tooled right now, with 45 quotations pending, indicative of a technology that is earth and ledger friendly. "Everybody''s been looking at green as a compliance type of thing," Kenney says, "something you have to do. We wanted to turn it around and say for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is it''s the `right thing to do,'' there are market opportunities out there if you develop products that speak to being green."
11-layer fuel tanks?
Spartech''s sheet goes up to seven layers, but according to automotive plastics consultant Paul Tres, founder of Engineering Technology Services (Bloomfield Hills, MI), that might not be enough as standards become even stricter, which could change the technologies and materials used to make fuel tanks.
"Right now you need around six to seven layers," Tres says, "those are the average vehicles being built in the U.S. I would say in the next three to five years, we will be talking about 11 layers."
Tres says plastics fuel tanks, whether they''re made via thermoforming, blowmolding, or rotomolding, are far from a given. In Europe he estimates that 95% of tanks are plastic, but in the U.S. (75%), and Japan (35%), metal still has a significant presence, which could be augmented by tougher emissions codes. According to Tres, an entire fuel system, over the course of a year, shouldn''t lose more than 2g of gasoline through permeation.
Tres also points out