18 October 2011
New car material: coconut composite
The newest weapons in the fight against too much weight? Bananas, coconut, bamboo, flax. That is, if you are a car. These are all products that are nowadays being used as reinforcing materials in plastic composites, forming a green alternative to conventional reinforcements like glass fiber, carbon fiber and aramid.
Composites are lightweight, cost efficient and they offer unparalleled design and form freedom. Little wonder that they have seen such eager adoption by the automotive industry. Sustainability, however, is not their strong suit: they are generally petroleum based and extremely difficult to recycle. This is a sensitive point in cars: EU End of Life Vehicles directive established targets of 85% for reuse and recycling of ELVs, and 95% for reuse and recovery, with no more than 10% of the vehicle allowed to be used for energy recovery for the year 2015. This, among other considerations, has led to much research into the use of natural fibers in composites – even for structural applications. Natural fiber composites have already gained ground in car interior applications: trim, dashboards, seats, and the like.
For recently announced that it was working closely with Scotts Miracle-Gro, a soil and grass seed supplier, to investigate whether coconut husks could be used in the production of molded plastic parts. For Scotts Miracle-Gro, the husks, or coir, are a waste product. For Ford cars, it would mean a smaller ecological footprint, less weight (compared to conventional reinforcing materials) and improved recycling possibilities.
Squeezed between EU regulations and customer demand, carmakers have no choice but to continue to research and develop innovative material solutions. Other industries are watching closely, and waiting to see what works.