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Biopolymers in automotive interiors : a step towards sustainability


With environment-friendly ‘green' products becoming the norm of the day, research and development of biopolymers in addition to their versatile applications in durables particularly automotives, invokes high expectations from the industry as well as the consumers. Though the efforts put into development of the biomaterials continues at a brisk pace, it faces an actuality of high prices, insufficient production capacity and a yet-to-develop infrastructure for composting which adversely affects the growth curve. We are yet to witness a scenario whereby the production of biopolymers is adequate to meet the demand and their prices are competitive with the petrochemical-based polymers. This is far from reality even in Europe where biopolymer growth is most sturdy. Nevertheless, we have to take notice and appreciate the innovative developments and applications of biolpolymers in consumer durables and automotive industry, besides the already penetrated consumer packaging. Considering such a scenario for automotive industry, products like polylactic acid (PLA) and polybutylene succinate (PBS) are the major ones to have high regards amongst the industry for their biodegradable nature without compromising on the industry quality standards.

The application of PLA and other biopolymers in the automotive sector (especially interiors) requires the products to meet the quality standards of high degree of strength, low degree of damage from sunlight, resistance to abrasion, high durability and high resistance to fire. Although PLA has certain limitations to meet the standards, new materials and modifying agents are expanding both its reach and applications. Efforts are focused on boosting mechanical and thermal properties so biopolymers can be effective alternatives to less costly commodity materials. Among the new developments are PLA foam grades for thermoformed meat trays, new additives for greater strength and reduced degradation, and fiber-reinforced materials that will expand its uses multifold. Apparently, it is apt to say that automotive industry is the perfect place for biopolymers like PLA to make a start as a globally marketed and widely applied as an eco-friendly product for automotive interiors besides other durables.
In this respect, Japanese auto companies like Mazda and Mitsubishi have been principal initiators in the field not to mention the likes of Ford Motors which is seriously considering using the bio-based and renewable plastics for their auto interior parts. The commendable effort put behind reviewing renewable plastics as alternatives to the oil-based counterparts by such companies will certainly set the stage in order to promote considerable research and developmental activities to help realize an ‘eco-friendly' automobile society.

Japan 's Mazda Motor Corp. launched the world's very first biofabric which were used in the seat covers and door trims of the Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid. The biofabric which falls under the ‘Mazda Biotechmaterial' brand name is made of 100% polylactic acid (PLA). The biofabric, jointly developed by Mazda with Teijin Limited and Teijin Fibers Limited at R&D facilities in Hiroshima, does not possess any oil-based materials yet it provides the quality and durability required for use in seat covers. A number of technologies were amassed to control the entire molecular architecture of raw resins to improve fiber strength until it qualified for the standards of strength, durability, abrasion resistance, lower degree of damage from sunlight, in addition to being flame retardant. Mazda's biofabric technology that contains 100% plant derived PLA will be a firm foundation for future bio-based materials to reduce the burden on the environment.
One more addition to the Japanese green auto initiatives is the joint research of Mitsubishi Motors Corp. with Aichi Industrial Technology Institute to develop a biopolymer of polybutylene succinate (PBS) and bamboo fiber for auto interiors. PBS is made from 1,4-butanediol (a petrochemical) and succinic acid (a product of fermenting sugar cane or corn). The fiber-reinforced material is said to provide greater rigidity and strength.
Recently, Ford Motor Co. has also spelled out a goal to manufacture interior auto parts form natural products that may dissolve after their lives are over. In fact, it has broken the ice on bio-based plastics when it used the soybean-derived urethane foam blend in the Mustang that now features in six of its vehicles. As per Ford's materials research and advanced engineering department, the point of time is still far when the car companies stop using parts that are dumped into the landfills. Among the sustainable materials that can fit the bill, Ford aims at Shape-memory polymers (that return to a preset shape at a certain temperature), composites that use natural structural materials such as kenaf, hemp and jute, corn-based PLA and Mucell technology (which uses microscopic air bubbles to improve the structural performance of a plastic). The toughest task that Ford wants to accomplish is that of offsetting the traditional plastics with PLA due to their fully compostable nature. Nonetheless, the automotive use of PLA faces two chief hindrances: the disintegration of the currently engineered PLA within 2 months and a longer molding time needed for PLA in the press.

Further down the line, we can expect the automobile companies to impose certain obligations for the supply chain to provide products that are environmentally friendly. In addition, we can also look forward to an aggressive R&D in development of materials which are bio-degradable over those made from polyester as its reprocessing may prove to be more expensive than the disposal and composting of products such as seats made with PLA fabrics. Another driving factor is the reduced dependence on petroleum. Also, for the PLA composting concept to be valid, other interior components such as foam, carpet, acoustic underlay and door panels might also need to be PLA (or any other compostable biodegradable plastic) in order to prevent the need at the end of the vehicle's life to separate biodegradable products from recyclable products. Considering the time it has taken PET to become prevalent, bio-based polymers is a concept that might even take half a century to be realized. Having said that, a journey to a thousand miles starts with a single step and thus, the application of PLA and other bio-based polymers in auto interiors is just a step towards taking automotive sector towards sustainability.

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