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Auto industry sees plastic composites in an EV future

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Auto industry sees plastic composites in an EV future

Sam VamHagen, Ford Motor Co.

President Joe Biden and Linda Zhang, Ford’s chief engineer, F-150 Lightning, with the all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning earlier this year.

As President Joe Biden announced a new national target Aug. 5 for electric vehicles to make up half of all new vehicle sales by 2030, automotive suppliers continue to focus new developments on sustainable composites to reduce the weight of "every component on the vehicle."

Driving mileage remains one of the auto industry's main sources of CO2 emissions contributing to global climate change, Matt Parkinson, senior manager of application development engineering and composite technologies at BASF Corp.'s Performance Materials division, said at the Center for Automotive Research's annual Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City Aug. 4.

While a carbon-fiber body in white "takes more energy to produce the actual material" than a steel body in white, Parkinson said, because of the lightweight properties of carbon fiber, "there becomes a break-even point ... where the carbon fiber actually becomes more favorable."

BASF's spray transfer molding technology takes "what would have been a thermoset, a not very sustainable product in the past, and trying to continue those thermosets but do it in a sustainable way," he said. "We do that by combining the castor oil within our polyurethane … with natural fibers.

"It doesn't matter how complex the component might be … how long it's been done in steel, die cast aluminum or extruded aluminum," Parkinson said. "Every component on the vehicle has the potential to be a plastic composite, to reduce mass, to have a benefit of mass savings and contribute back to that carbon footprint analysis to reduce and be more environmentally friendly."

Faurecia's NAFI Lean, using natural fillers such as hemp, has gone into vehicles since 2013.

Getting ‘lean'

Nantes, France-based auto supplier Faurecia is focused on reducing the environmental impact of its products, Katie Roco, customer engineering manager at Faurecia, told Plastics News. "We know our customers are also focusing on what we can do to help better the environment for future generations."

This month, Faurecia won the Altair Enlighten Award for sustainable process for its NAFI Lean Stiff, a 100 percent recyclable polypropylene compound with a 20 percent bio-sourced content.

NAFI Stiff, part of the company's NAFI Lean (Natural Fiber for Lean Injection Design) product line, which integrates a natural, hemp-based fiber with polypropylene, "offers something comparable to a long glass-fiber material," which is less likely to be recyclable, Roco said.

Faurecia recently created a new division to develop and manufacture sustainable and smart materials, including the NAFI Lean product line, which will collaborate across its business divisions, including interiors and seats, with a portfolio of materials with ultralow and negative CO2 emissions to support automakers' sustainability goals.

The company plans to construct a dedicated sustainable materials research and development center and a pilot plant, both of which will be operational in 2022, according to a news release. The new division will start with 125 engineers and grow to more than 400 by 2030.

"The natural fiber reinforcement that we combine with the polypropylene to make the end injection material," Roco said, is only made from part of the hemp plant. "When hemp is farmed, it's generally a CO2 negative product. It doesn't need any irrigation, any fertilizer. It's not in competition with the food chain, and the other parts of the plant that we aren't using for the plastic production gets put back into circulation," in products like hemp seed oil and pet litter.

"Developing the interface between the natural compound and polypropylene so we get the bond and the matrix of the materials that really give you stiff product performance and still offer the weight reduction, recyclability content and reduced CO2 over the life cycle of the product" was a challenge for developers, she said.

The NAFI Lean product line has been used in instrument panels, center consoles and door panels of 17 production vehicles since 2013.

The composite material allows for complex shapes, architectures and weight reduction, and can be used in traditional injection molding machines.

Faurecia is also looking to create variants of NAFI Lean out of recycled materials, Roco said.

NAFI Stiff has been launched on two vehicles in production of instrument panel carriers, usually a steel tube, often called the cross-car beam. The product is expected to be used in a third vehicle in the center console later this year, Roco said.

The NAFI Lean materials in Faurecia's portfolio are cost competitive and "can compete with anything on the market as far as durability and lifespan," she added.

Suppliers and OEMs "don't have to compromise design freedom" when using composites, because of their "excellent mechanical properties" for complex parts with features like carpet attachments that can be created in a one-step process, Parkinson said.

BASF's partnership with Toyota for the 2021 Sienna's plastic third row seat won the Altair Enlighten Award in 2020 for vehicle weight savings.

Normally made of 15 welded steel components, BASF's version of the seat was made as one injection molded component, Parkinson said.

Although development of sustainable solutions requires investment, scaling up successful processes can make them "cost-neutral with traditional materials," he said.

"We are taking plastic waste and turning that into sustainable plastics, not mechanical recycling but chemical recycling," Parkinson said. "Natural fibers, too, getting the scale up is really key to getting cost down on some of the new solutions."

"We have a very lofty ambition to be carbon neutral by 2030," Roco said at MBS.

Faurecia plans to meet that goal by partnering with other suppliers and OEM customers "to communicate and bring solutions to the market," she said. "The customer wants to have these sustainable solutions throughout all of their applications.

"All of our products are tested … to OEM standards" including their "cost-per-kilo impact," which can be higher than traditional materials, Roco said. Cost-neutral products can still be delivered to consumers through weight savings, leading to better energy savings.

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