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The appeal of bio-based parts for use in the next generation of vehicles is increasing, and there are three compelling factors at work.

Stringent fuel economy and emissions regulations

There is rising demand for lighter-weight materials, which can translate into huge energy and cost savings for manufacturers. Biomaterials are not only lightweight, they also reduce dependence on non-renewable resources such as conventional petroleum-based polymeric plastics, which are fossil-fuel materials. Biomaterials are made from renewable resources and the latest generation can achieve price-performance competitiveness, potentially lowering costs for both manufacturers and consumers.

These factors have prompted Ford Motor Co. and other auto makers to invest in bio-based material research. However, there are challenges to overcome before these materials can be more widely adopted.

Two crucial challenges include achieving the same physical properties as conventional plastics and ensuring that biocomposite materials can be processed with equipment and other parameters that are similar to the substituted resin. Auto makers have strict physical property requirements that all materials in modern vehicles – including fossil-fuel based polymers such as grades of polypropylene and nylon – must meet before they can be certified for use in the automotive industry.

Extensive tests and considerable investment in time and resources are required to achieve the necessary approval to use a new material in a production vehicle. Auto makers depend on the firms that supply finished parts to conduct performance analysis on the materials. This is another significant hurdle to new material introduction, because it involves a leap of faith in performing expensive analytical tests.

Sustainability challenges

The auto industry is one of the major sectors driving the demand for bio-based materials to meet sustainability challenges. In addition to reducing the use of petro-based materials, these new bio-based materials can provide a new revenue stream to farmers and possibly even the forestry industry by extending the value chain of crops and creating jobs.

Given the advantages of biomaterials and the challenges that must be met prior to their broader adoption by auto manufacturers, bio-based material research conducted at the Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre (BDDC) has been well received.

In the past five years, BDDC researchers have been exploring ways of increasing bio-based content in automotive parts by up to 34 per cent while reducing weight by 5 per cent and maintaining material integrity and performance at a competitive cost. The leap in percentage of biomass has been achieved by using crops known as perennial grasses and biocarbon. Some of the vehicle parts that researchers have successfully moulded in partnership with industry include console boxes, parcel trays, sun visors, glove boxes, door trim and handles.

Market access

The BDDC credits its success to market access. With the aid of industrial partners, objectives are well defined prior to embarking on scientific pursuit of a biomaterial to replace a petroleum-based material. In addition, the auto makers have increased confidence in the process development thanks to initial BDDC test results and they are more willing to work with the bio-polymers.

Another factor underpinning the BDDC's success is continuous innovation, which allows researchers to connect the dots and create new materials through inventive chemistry using a variety of scalable supply chains of biomass.

Through many years of collaboration, industry partners have assumed risks by undertaking detailed in-car assembly testing to commercialize products and materials developed by researchers. This market-aware research is one of the main tenets on which the success of the BDDC is built and a big reason for the relatively short commercialization cycle time it achieves when working collaboratively with its many industry partners.

Auto21 Network researchers Dr. Amar Kumar Mohanty and Dr. Manjusri Misra contribute to the organization's Hybrid Biocomposites for Automotive Applications project and they are professors at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

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