BIOPOLYMERS AND INDUSTRY: THE AUTOMOTIVE SECTOR
In this chapter we will begin to evaluate the transition of polymeric materials from Fossil to Sustainable, to Compostable, in the most important industrial segments, with which many of us interact on a daily basis.
It should be emphasized that when we imagine a transition like the one mentioned above, we must be aware that the replacement of over three hundred million tons of polymers and technopolymers, produced every year by the petrochemical industry, cannot take place for at least twenty years.
The knowledge of potentially exploitable Bio raw materials, the synthesis to make monomers, the production processes to obtain polymers, are still in full development phase, so they are not yet in a position to sustain a change of this magnitude (volumes / year) in shorter times.
In our opinion there will be a quantum leap when bio solutions will no longer derive from existing plant resources.
In fact, a change of scale, a paradigm shift, will be needed to replace such a mass of products so different from each other in quantity, quality and performance.
In any case, we are certain that the commitment made in the search for the ideal solution, which will arrive sooner or later, will certainly continue to enrich the offer of eco-sustainable and useful solutions on a daily basis, to achieve the result expected by the EC: the reduction of overall greenhouse gas emissions.
The objective of the European Community, which we now know, is to bring greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.
Having established it in such a clear and decisive manner represents a very important step. It has made it possible to focus everyone’s attention on the issue and activate the development of multiple strategies for a profound review of “how to do” what we know in a “more with less” key. As well as bringing attention to what really needs to be done (see the first part of this analysis). Inserire Link come ipertesto https://www.2milasrl.it/en/green-deal-plastics-and-transition-towards-sustainability/.
The final result understandably will be the meeting (and the synthesis) of all the best production practices, with the needs/requirements of the customer or final market, which will also certainly change, in the direction of an increased awareness and demand for a less impacting solution on the ecosystem (less with less).
During our in-depth analysis we will touch some sectors (automotive, packaging, disposable) but we will not go into the details of every single application.
We will deliberately remain generalists to allow considerations to emerge in the reader, which may also be transversal to other industrial sectors that we will not speak of.
We will leave everyone the opportunity to make connections with their own industrial segment, imagining for themselves how the future availability of new “non-fossil” polymers could influence, or impact, their business sectors.
The Transport – Automotive- Sector
The transport sector, in particular the automotive sector, has always been at the forefront of technological evolution, design, experimentation with new raw materials and conversion processes. In fact, many raw materials were created to meet the needs of this important technological sector and then evolved finding successful strategic positions also in other industrial sectors (eg PC/ABS alloys).
This sector has always been a real applied research laboratory for all companies producing fossil polymers, whether they are thermoplastic or thermosetting (eg BMC).
Here the first materials with high impact resistance appeared with greater chemical resistance (to gasoline) and greater UV resistance, for the bumpers (eg PC/PBT and rubber PP alloys).
Or materials combined with conversion technologies such as LFT (Long Fiber Technology). Long Glass fibers concentrates, suitable for injection molding of highly mechanically stressed technical parts, diluted in the same polymeric matrices (eg PP) to obtain the best combination of rigidity, aesthetics, flatness and dimensional stability.
Or, again, materials for the production of car body parts with important surfaces, such as fenders, which were required to have high flatness, low thermal expansion coefficient and a high thermal resistance capable of withstanding the temperatures of in-line painting ovens (eg. PA-PPO).
Products that have opened the door to multiple solutions and rethinks in the way of building/assembling plastic products to the car chassis (e.g. the Smart car)1Video
The transport sector, particularly the Automotive segment, is an industrial sector in continuous transformation, with constant incremental innovations at every level (electrical, electronic, mechanical, hydraulic) which, however, has not yet evolved at the “system” level (the “car system” as a means of transport on wheels, with an internal combustion engine, to move people or goods, has been the same for more than 100 years).
It is also considered the luxury sector with the greatest environmental impact in terms of CO2 emissions.
Innovation in progress
It is only in recent times (the last 15 years) that there have been signs of substantial innovation, which we will see complete over time.
Faced with the new ambitious targets for a substantial reduction in emissions2, quantified in grams of CO2/km and in line with the European target of reducing overall emissions by -40% by 2030, to reach a minimum of -60% by 2050, the wheeled transport industry has realized that the internal combustion system, already at the top of its evolutionary curve, will have to change.
It’s relationship with the roads (the super system) will also change in the not too distant future. Here too there is already some evidence (eg electrified lines on motorways).
In the meantime, companies have done everything possible to try to reduce fuel consumption (l/km) and CO2 emissions
They worked a lot on the old system by working on fuels (Diesel, Petrol), on aerodynamics, structural materials and also on tire compounds.
But the target of 25km/l for gasoline and 95g/km of emissions has only been achieved on some vehicles (eg. small cars).
For other types of cars, keeping the same propellant and known performances, the calculations indicate that their weight should be reduced by 300/500kg. More or less the weight of their engine.
It is therefore no coincidence that plastics have become increasingly important in automobile production.
Their presence, in kg/car, has been steadily increasing, going from 140kg in the year 2000 to around 300kg today.
Consumption of carbon fibers for the structural parts has increased, new nanofillers, hollow glass spheres, transparent polymeric materials instead of glass, new metal alloys in castings instead of traditional aluminum and metal have been introduced.
In short, there is a great creative ferment in the “laboratory” and all this will help the speed of the future, new, evolutionary curve.
Someone has decided for less complicated solutions by modifying the emission reading systems. Certainly a bizarre attempt, which nevertheless provides the figure of the challenge that the sector is facing.
A challenge that will inevitably and definitively be played in another “field”: the Electric one.
The path has now been drawn and the objectives are clear for everyone.
The transition process is pushed and economically supported by the EC, with substantial funds for innovation3.
The goal for 2050 is articulated and particularly ambitious and does not only consider the emissions produced by cars.
It is also about production systems.
That is, the quantities of CO2 emitted by the production processes of the manufacturing companies. In fact, it has been calculated that around 6 tons of CO2e are emitted to build a small car, while 35 tons are emitted for the production of a SUV (Sub Urban Vehicle)4.
There is still a large dependency on metals (>60%)5.
The new Phase
As always happens in technological transitions, the old mature and consolidated system supports the newcomer before leaving the scene. This phase is the “hybrid” phase.
A phase in which polymers are also moving.
We believe that the car of the future will be very different from that of today. It will probably become a kind of levitating “time capsule”, in which you can do anything and, perhaps, even drive. It is easy to imagine that the materials of future cars will be required to perform differently from the current ones.
We can already imagine that the abandonment of internal combustion engines will dramatically reduce the need for polymers resistant to high temperatures and hydrolysis, favoring other performances (tactile, olfactory, visual) functional to general comfort.
This will completely redesign the list of products currently used, favoring the more sustainable ones and also the biodegradable ones, which, in turn, will evolve as it should be towards higher performance standards (functional and aesthetic).
Also favored by the evolution of the so-called fine chemicals companies, which will be able to produce customized modifiers for every need suitable for the new completely biological polymer matrices.
It is easy to imagine that hybrid, non-degradable and non-compostable Biobased polymer matrices will be favored in this transition phase.
Certainly they will have to compete with materials with a high content of recycled product (today present at <40%), both from industrial and post-consumer waste6.
These recycled materials combine the reduction of CO2 with the reduction of the need for virgin fossil raw materials, an element highly valued by the EC.
Bioplastics in the Automotive segment
As an application research and development laboratory, the Automotive sector began evaluating natural materials as early as the ’30s.
Ford in 1941 successfully tested a first composite made with 70% cellulose fibers of pine, straw, hemp and nettle fibers, linked by a probably epoxy resin, with which he developed the body of his “Soybean Car” (Soy car) best known to most as the Hemp car7.
Since then, research on natural fibers has never stopped and has led to the creation of different solutions for the interior upholstery of cars even if, in some cases, it seems that the smell of the materials has created some problems.
In the late ‘90s, there was a certain buzz around hybrid injection molding compounds. Materials made on a PP and PE base, loaded with fibers or natural fillers of various types: wood, hemp, linen, cork.
The injection molding machine producers were also involved and became interested in these new materials, as they were of interest to automobile companies.
The choice of the PP was no coincidence. Polyolefins, particularly PP, are very suitable for loading and PP among others is certainly the preferred material in the automotive sector8.
Its relatively low processing temperature (from 180°C upwards) made it possible to manage the problems related to the low thermal resistance of natural fibers quite well.
But the strong olfactory residues and the poor low mechanical resistance of the parts did not allow its development on a large scale.
Nevertheless the experience was certainly significant for all the actors of the time.
Today, almost twenty years later, things have completely changed.
Thanks to the new biopolymers obtained from completely renewable sources such as bioPA, bioPE, bioPP, PLA and other resins made up of 30, 40, 50% monomers obtained from renewable sources from sugars and starches, open up to new opportunities for a transition in the name of reducing the overall carbon footprint (CFP).
These advanced biopolymers can also be modified, enriched, downstream through compounding.
A process during which natural fillers or reinforcements can be added, but also, and this is a recent novelty (2018), with completely degradable Glass fibers9.
The use of this new type of glass fibers allows to exponentially increase the performance of compostable biopolymers, bringing them to the levels of the most used technopolymers in the sector, without however renouncing to the industrial compostability10 as an alternative solution to recovery (also possible) or to incinerate them.
In conclusion, we believe that there are excellent opportunities for biopolymers for interesting innovations along the “S” curve of technological development in this sector.
Without forgetting that even for durable goods such as these, the time has now come to clearly describe to the consumer the most congenial disposal path.
This, of course, regardless of its polymer base, as indicated in the guidelines of the Circular Economy drawn up by the EC, which find their synthesis in the suffixes ” Re” (Recycle, Reuse, Recovery).
- SMART assembly line: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgycQuIxr_M
- Europe, in 2009, set limits to the automotive industry in terms of emissions of CO2 in grams/km. These limits indicated 130g/km by 2015 and 95g/km by 2020. Based on same propellant, 95g/km mean a consumption of 3.95 liters per 100km, which is equivalent to 25.3 l/km. The goal is 13g/km within 2050.
- In Italy, the IPPR institute (Institute for the Promotion of Recycled Plastics) has defined the rules for the production of materials with a certain content of industrial or post-consumer recycled materials, certified as “Plastic Second Life” and “MixEco” brands. This latter provides limits for recycled content of at least 30% and maximum 59%. https://www.ippr.it/l-istituto-ippr
- ABM (Artic Biomaterials) company, marketed in Italy by 2Mila Srl, produces compounds based on PLA and other biopolymers, with a bio content from 70% to 90%, reinforced with degradable glass fibers (Bioglass), perfectly complying with the EN13432 standard.
- The European EN13432 is a reference standard for compostability which provides for complete degradation of the material within 180 days. This condition can also be met by technical pieces as long as the final object is previously shredded and brought to the size (thickness) previously certified by a relevant body (eg DinCertco, OK Compost, etc …).