Scientists create car parts from weeds

We’re always hearing about how we could make more fuel-efficient choices when it comes to choosing our next car, but have you ever thought about how the manufacturing processes of your vehicle may impact the environment? Research has found that some car manufacturers emit as much carbon dioxide during the manufacturing process as the car will emit in its lifetime of driving.

However, scientists may have come up with a clever way of combating this issue, by developing car parts from weeds! The Biomotive Project - set up in Poland - is exploring how plants could be used to build car parts, such as dashboards and other interiors, in the future.

Scientists predict that if car manufacturers were to use plant-based materials, up to 58% of greenhouse gases could be eliminated during the manufacturing process.

With this in mind, SinoScan UK explores the possibilities in this month’s blog:

How the technology could work

Plant chemicals are used to synthesise polymers in the lab - a natural process already used in many industrial sectors. The bioplastics that result can be heated and injected into a mould or 3D printed like any conventional plastic. However, unlike traditional plastics, bioplastics generally do not produce a net increase in carbon dioxide gas when they break down and require a lot less energy to be produced than commonly used plastics today.

Project aims

The main objective of The Biomotive Project is to find a commercially viable way of producing these materials for the automotive industry and according to a statement on the organisation’s website’s, the project will also aim to achieve the following:

•“From a scientific and technological perspective, it intends to demonstrate the production of biobased raw materials and building blocks for the subsequent application in the formulation of biobased polyesters-polyols and bio-based thermoplastic TPUs (Thermoplastic PolyUrethane) and the production of novel cellulose-based regenerated fibres from paper pulp. “

•“From an environmental, safety and resource efficiency perspective, BIOMOTIVE aims to reduce primary energy consumption and GHG emission of the developed processes and improve the recyclability of the end-of-life bio-products through eco-design strategies.”

•“From a socio-economic perspective, BIOMOTIVE aims to create new jobs in the bio-based, green chemistry sectors and agricultural sectors, while paving the way for additional investments in the bio-based economy in Eastern European countries. In addition, it seeks to expand the market for thermoplastic polyurethanes and regenerated fibres into the construction and the textile sectors.””

What are the benefits?

Aside from being more environmentally friendly, bioplastics can also help us limit our dependency on other renewable sources, such as fossil fuels; which are finite and therefore likely to become significantly more expensive in the next few years. If the project is successful, using bioplastics in car manufacturing could therefore be both environmentally and commercially advantageous.

What’s more, compared to polybutylene terephthalates (PBT) - which are often used in the automotive industry - biobased polyesters have some excellent mechanical properties:

• they provide a higher stiffness

• feature very good dimensional stability and lower warpage

• feature better thermal shock resistance

• provide good electrical properties

• are easier to process

• provide a better surface gloss

And the disadvantages?

One of the big disadvantages of producing bioplastics is the land required to grow the crops needed to produce such materials. There is already a lot of demand on farmers in countries where food supplies are scarce; meaning the production of bioplastics may not be a globally viable solution – especially on mass scale.

What’s more, bioplastics can only be biodegraded in a dedicated industrial facility – many of which aren’t available in less technologically-advanced countries. This could therefore make the scrapping of cars in the future more expensive.

It’s also important that bioplastics are disposed of properly; otherwise they can contaminate other goods in the recycling process, which defeats the whole point of using them.

Producing bioplastics is currently one of the more expensive environmentally-friendly options; so if this idea is ever to take off, scientists will need to find a way of producing bioplastics on a mass scale at a fraction of the price.

Lastly, critics are keen to point on that if manufacturers truly want to reduce their greenhouse gases emissions, they need to look further than just their manufacturing processes. Factories use up a huge amount of energy from machinery, back-up systems and so on; but there are ways manufacturers can optimise their use of equipment to help combat this. For example, nozzles on air hoses wear over time, making them less efficient. Simply replacing these would mean manufacturers save energy (and production time!). Toyota are a leading example of how optimising their factory has helped reduce their energy consumption – in the last 14 years, they’ve managed to reduce energy used to manufacture their cars by 8% annually.

On the whole, there are strong arguments for the use of bioplastics in the production of car parts - recent economic an ecological concerns certainly being two of them. Several manufacturers, including Fiat and Mazda are constantly exploring new ways to use bioplastics – demonstrating manufacturers belief in this eco-friendly solution. However, if it is to truly implemented, scientists will have to find a more commercially viable way of producing these materials for both manufacturers and car buyers.

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