11 Juli 2005

Biocars pick up speed as option for automakers

High oil prices give bio-based materials huge potential market

If vehicles made out of soybeans and hemp sound far-fetched, think again. Dave Hume believes that within five years, 50 kilograms of every car could come from plant-based materials.

The University of Guelph crop science professor and bioproducts co-ordinator for the Ontario Agricultural College organized a meeting last month that brought together 65 academics, autoparts suppliers and car manufacturers to discuss the possibilities.

The atmosphere, he says, was electric. High-level representatives from Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd. and General Motors of Canada were enthusiastically exploring the potential of plastics made from corn and soybean oil instead of petroleum-based products.

FotoUniversity of Toronto professor Mohini Sain displays a bus seat support made of hemp fibres. University researchers from across the province touted the benefits of composites containing hemp fibre, flax straw and even rutabagas instead of the traditional glass fibre.

“We had scheduled an hour for discussion time at the end and we thought this has the potential to fall flat on its face,” Hume says. “Well, after an hour, things were just getting nicely going.”

The environmental benefits are clear: Bio-based products come from renewable resources, don’t generate greenhouse gases and can be biodegraded instead of consigned to the landfill at the end of their useful life.

But the big impetus for auto manufacturers is the potential to create higher-quality cars at lower costs, says Peter Frise, CEO of AUTO21, a federal government-supported national research initiative whose goal is to enhance the global competitiveness of the Canadian automotive industry.

Already, the average European car contains 20 kilograms of bioproducts. Cornstarch slurries are used in the moulding of rubber tires and sparkplugs, plant-based plastics are transformed into car mats and air bags, while jute, hemp and flax are mixed with polypropylene to create car interiors.

In Europe, use of bioproducts is being driven by high agricultural subsidies. Even so, bioproducts are still more common in high-end vehicles such as BMWs and Mercedes, where cost is less of an issue.

But as oil prices continue to climb, alternatives to petroleum-based plastics and composites look increasingly attractive in North America.

“I think that we’re closing in on a situation where the cost will make sense for some of the biomaterials,” Frise says.

For farmers, biomaterials could be the holy grail – a potentially huge new market that could drive up the prices of agricultural commodities, which are currently languishing at an all-time low. More effective herbicides coupled with better tillage practices mean farmers are producing more than ever before, so they need new outlets for their stockpiles of corn and soybeans.

In southern Ontario, targeting the auto industry was an obvious choice.

“We have 30 car (parts) plants in the city of Guelph, we have five major assembly plants within a hour’s drive of Guelph,” Hume says. “It’s one of the few places where there’s a lot of agricultural production going on side by side with really major auto manufacturers.”

Around the world, interest is growing in biomaterials, says Mohini Sain, a chemical engineering professor and director of the centre for biocomposites and biomaterials processing at the University of Toronto. His own research has led to hemp composites that could be moulded into products such as instrument panels.

Many of the materials are now being commercialized: Plastics made from plant-based polylactic acid in the United States, starch polymers in Italy, and various products in China and Japan.

“The success of this industry here in North America will very much depend on how fast and how economically we can make these materials match the performance of the existing plastics and metals,” Sain says.

He estimates that the current generation of biomaterials can meet the performance criteria for 50 per cent of interior applications. Their strength is similar to glass fibre composites, he says, but crash resistance still needs to be improved. Moisture resistance also needs to be increased for exterior applications such as hoods and bumpers. That still leaves plenty of opportunities now in low’-performance and medium’-performance applications, however.

Hume says there will be cars containing soy-based foam by the end of the year. He adds that one Ontario-based company, which produces foam for auto seats, has seen three price increases for materials since January, but is locked into fixed-price contracts with its customers. “They are desperately looking for a way to access product at a lower rate,” he says. “Right now, the price of soybean oil is about half the price of petroleum oil.”

The next steps, Hume and Frise agree, are putting the right people in touch with one another. Hume has applied to Agriculture and Agrifood Canada for funding to help the University of Guelph, the Ontario Soybean Growers and the City of Guelph broker the concept of the biocar. Over the next three months, he plans to meet more key players and connect researchers with industry.

There are also important issues to be worked out. Quality assurance is key, since a single recall in the automotive sector can involve up to 100,000 vehicles. And logistics are equally important – a one-hour delay in delivering parts to an assembly plant earns suppliers a $1-million fine.

There is also the problem of meshing the needs of manufacturers that make parts and build cars every day with the agricultural reality of an annual harvest.

“Any industry as large as the automotive industry can only make moves at a certain speed,” Frise says. “We have to make sure that the supplies and the properties and everything else is sorted out properly before we commit to a production start.”

“This is a big, complicated task that’s going to take a concerted effort on the part of quite a number of different people, many of whom have never worked together before,” Frise says. “But I think we can do it.”

(Cf. news of Oct. 30, 2003.)

Source: Business Edge Vol. 2, No 14 June 07, 2005.

Share on Twitter+1Share on FacebookShare on XingShare on LinkedInShare via email