The collaboration between fiber manufacturer Unifi (unifi.com), Sage Automotive Interiors (sageautomotiveinteriors.com), and Ford resulted from all parties being in the right place at the right time. While Ford was working with Sage to develop a sustainable fabric for seating, Unifi was contacting Ford with its idea for Repreve, a polyester fiber that’s created using a hybrid of recycled plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, post-industrial fiber waste, and other post-consumer polymer waste.
To make Repreve, the collected waste is chopped, ground, melted, and reformulated, resulting in a chip. The chips are melted so they can be extruded through tiny openings in a spinneret that looks like a showerhead, creating continuous filaments that together make the recycled fiber. The fiber is then woven into durable fabrics by companies like Sage. Sage produces seat fabric for the 2012 Focus Electric. The seat fabric will also be used in the 2013 Fusion.
Sage CEO Dirk Pieper says the company has a goal to move more of its production to using materials like the Repreve fibers in the next 18 to 24 months.
In addition to diverting plastic bottles from landfills (each Focus uses 22, 16 oz. bottles), Repreve reduces the need to use newly refined crude oil for production, and cuts energy consumption and CO2 emissions during the manufacturing process.
Pieper says he knows it won’t be easy to convince all of Sage’s customers that going green is a good move, but the company is committed to adopting sustainable practices. “We’re in more of push mode than a pull mode right now. If you go across a lot of the OEM base, they can get turned off very quickly if there’s a premium for sustainable products. So we’ve been in a push or heavy marketing mode trying to educate the OEMs and be a leader in sustainability.”
Good for Allergy Sufferers and the Environment
German company Benecke-Kaliko’s (benecke-kaliko.de), which supplies a variety of materials for interior applications, focuses on the use of renewable natural resources and lighter materials. Its Acella Eco product family is a vinyl trim material formulated with sustainability and car owners in mind. Because volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are kept to a minimum and stabilizers containing heavy metals as well as antimony trioxide have been removed, the product is safe for prolonged contact with the skin. Its Acella Eco Green is contact-allergen-free in conformity with the ENV0006 Volvo standard and its cover material gives off few emissions and odors. And Acella Eco Natural interior material for vehicle seats and door moldings contains up to 50% renewable raw materials when compared with standard trim material. The material is currently used in various Volvo models including the XC60, which the Swedish Asthma and Allergy Association has added it to the list of cars safe for people with allergies.
To illustrate its products’ earth-friendly qualities, Benecke-Kaliko commissioned an ecological balance sheet for its materials, from inception to end-of-life. In addition to the Acella family, the supplier examined TEPEO, an ultra-light foam laminate for door trim and instrument panels. Speaking of the results of the study, Dr. Roland Freudenmann, head of PVC & PUR Advanced Development at Benecke-Kaliko, says, “Compared to the standard trim material, Acella Eco Natural had a 15% better CO2 balance. The lightweight TEPEO sheeting scored 48% better than the standard sheeting in terms of CO2 emissions.” Consequently, he suggests, these materials are environmentally sound “alternatives to conventional trim materials for manufacturers of electric cars and other particularly sustainable vehicles.”
Wood Fiber Composites
Since vehicle weight, fuel economy, and environmental appropriateness have been concerns in Europe for longer than in North America, France-headquartered Faurecia (faurecia.com) has developed materials for the European market that are now highly applicable in North America. For example, the company’s reclaimed-wood fiber composites for interior-trim components typically use a post-industrial supply stream that comes from saw mills and furniture makers, with 70 to 85% of the composite made from this waste. The remainder is a plastic resin binder to join the materials once they’ve been compression molded.
Jay Hutchins, director of marketing and product planning for Faurecia Interior Systems says the company has the capabilities to tailor its products to OEM specifications to make sure they’re meeting all of their requirements while also offering weight-savings. While wood is typically an expensive, heavy, and rigid material, the company has developed technologies to combat this:
Lignoflex is a compression-molded wood fiber substrate that is covered with a stock material. It is about 25% lighter than a traditional molded plastic substrate, and is being used on the door panel insert of the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger.
Ligneos combines wood-fiber composite technology with a decorative surface. Instead of covering the wood fiber with fabric or other materials, it is stained, painted or coated, exposing the wood fiber. A traditional wood-fiber substrate is combined with a wood-fiber veneer that is compression molded to get a traditional-looking wood surface that can be used for decorative purposes on large applications like a door panel insert. Faurecia is working on developments to apply this process to traditional instrument panel applications.
Natural fibers for injection (NAFI) are being used in the production of bolsters and beltlines for vehicle doors. The process uses a polypropylene-and-hemp compound to inject these parts, which are covered with foils, textiles, and leather. NAFI reduces the weight of door panel components by 20% when compared with injected polypropylene. In addition, it uses green materials in place of a portion of conventional oil-based substances to form the parts. It is currently in development with two of the company’s customers, and Hutchins says it will be coming to the market within the next year and a half.
More Efficient Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Researchers from the University of Central Florida (UCF; ucf.edu) have created hydrogen fuel cells that use gold and palladium as catalysts to convert the hydro-gen’s chemical energy into electrical power. If future tests prove successful, this approach might make hydrogen more viable as a fuel for vehicular applications.
Fuel cells typically use platinum as a catalyst, one of the four elements that can endure the highly acidic solvents present in the chemical reaction. Iridium, gold, and palladium are the others. Platinum and iridium are rare and expensive, thus impractical for large-scale applications. However, gold and palladium don’t handle the chemical reaction as well as the other elements, so UCF Professor Sergey Stolbov and postdoctoral research associate Marisol Alcántara Ortigoza are focusing on ways to make the materials and the reaction better.
The researchers created a sandwich-like structure that layers cheaper and more abundant elements with gold and palladium and other elements to make it more effective. The top of the sandwich is a monoatomic layer of either palladium or gold. Below it is a layer that works to enhance the energy conversion rate but also acts to protect the catalyst from the acidic environment. The bottom slice of the “sandwich” is an inexpensive substrate, tungsten, which also plays a role in the stability of the catalyst. Through this structure, more energy is converted, and because the more expensive and rare metals are not used, the cost could be significantly less. “We are very encouraged by our first attempts that suggest that we can create two cost-effective and highly active palladium- and gold-based catalysts for hydrogen fuel cells, a clean and renewable energy source,” Stolbov says.
A Greener Airbag Inflator
Autoliv (autoliv.com) has developed an environmentally friendly and cost-effective airbag inflator that uses hydrogen and oxygen for inflation, instead of the traditional pyrotechnic substances. As a result, there are no waste particles from the combustion nor gases like carbon dioxide released. The by-product of the Autoliv Passenger-inflator Gas (APG) is water vapor.
Because the mixing of the gases takes place in the textile cushion of the airbag, as opposed to a steel vessel as it does in traditional airbag inflators, a thinner and lighter housing container is used. This reduces material costs and weight—e.g., the inflator is about 20% lighter than traditional inflators for airbags on the front-passenger side.
The APG will primarily be used for passenger frontal airbags, which require higher gas quantities than other airbags in a vehicle.
Autoliv is working to develop a dual-stage version of the inflator which will be able to adjust the gas flow based on the severity of a crash by using two independent igniters and varying the time lapse by a few milliseconds between ignitions.