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Automakers Work On Sustainable Platforms

February 28, 2003

3 Min Read
Automakers Work On Sustainable Platforms

Not content on using natural-fiber reinforcement in interior panel parts, carmakers are investigating polymer matrices and textile fabrics produced from renewable resources.

Ford’s recently-unveiled Model U concept vehicle is one example. The vehicle incorporates what the OEM calls “pioneering green materials and processes,” in addition to using the world’s first supercharged hydrogen internal-combustion engine. Introduced during the company’s 100th anniversary celebration, Ford trumpets the vehicle as “the Model T of the 21st century.”

Various advanced materials were designed for environmental benefits and can go “from cradle to cradle,” according to Ford. This means that an end-of-life part can be recycled into the same exact part, rather than a lower-value part as is often the case in recycling applications. Post-consumer parts that were made with biodegradable polylactic acid (pla) polymers, alternatively, can be used as a soil nutrient.

“Some of these concepts won’t come to fruition for years to come, but this is an important first step,” says David Wagner, the Model U’s technology project manager.

The car uses Minnetonka, MN-based Cargill Dow’s pla polymer, which is derived from corn, for the canvas roof and carpet mats. Ford says the fabric has the comfort and feel of natural fiber while possessing the performance and maintenance ease of petroleum-based materials. Soy-based materials were used as well, including the polyurethane foam for the carseats and the glass-fiber-reinforced polyester for the tailgate.

The PUR foam is made using SoyOyl polyol from Urethane Soy System Co., Princeton, IL. Meanwhile, Envirez 5000 polyester resin from Ashland Specialty Chemical Co., Dublin, OH, contains 25% renewable-resource content. Envirez 5000 is already used commercially for composite parts on John Deere combines (Jan 02 MP, 37; MPI, 45). And, a polyester developed by Milliken & Co., Spartanburg, SC, for the fabric which covers the Model U’s seats, instrument panel, steering wheel, headrests, door trim, and armrests is intended to be recycled using chemical means. The body structure of the Model U is aluminum, with the front side panels built from a natural-fiber-filled composite.

In Japan, Toyota Motor Corp. is reportedly planning to utilize a pla-based resin reinforced with natural (kenaf) fibers for interior parts for the next version of its Prius hybrid car, which goes on sale in July. The carmaker would not confirm the report in Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun daily. However, the company has a joint venture with trading house Mitsui & Co. Ltd., called P.T. Toyota Bio Indonesia, that produces pla (and animal feed) from sweet potatoes. Toyota affiliate Araco Corp. plans to establish a commercial kenaf plantation in Indonesia. In 2001, Toyota first showed how biodegradable plastics could be used in interiors, with pillar covers for the ES3 concept car.

DuPont has reported that a seven-year research program with biotechnology company Genencor International Inc., Palo Alto, CA, has yielded a bio-based process which uses corn to produce its Sorona polymer platform based on 1,3-propanediol, for applications in clothing, carpeting, and car interiors. The company expects to announce plans to transition to the process later this year.

Meanwhile, Ford researchers have shown that through supercharging, the hydrogen engine in the Model U, which is based on a gasoline engine now in production, can deliver the same power as the latter while providing near-zero-emissions performance and high fuel economy. The Model U can carry up to 7 kg of compressed hydrogen. Its fuel tanks are made of a 3-mm aluminum pressure barrier with a carbon-fiber-reinforced structural casing.

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