Are bio-based solutions in the automotive industry the way forward?

bio-based solutions
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Michal Skwierczyński, Coordinator of the BioMotive project, explores the benefits of bio-based solutions for both automotive and wider industries post COVID-19

The world is facing an unprecedented crisis. In just a few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the world and caused tremendous human tragedy and a historical economic setback of which we still do not know the full impact. COVID-19 has triggered unprecedented lockdowns across the world, resulting in a supply and demand shock globally. Production closures, as well as job and salary cuts, are already weighing on the economy, while lending could be restricted to businesses and consumers despite generous government and central bank support. With lockdown measures being only gradually relaxed, COVID-19 might have long-lasting effects on our behaviour, the society and the economy.

Now, with many economies having been in complete lockdown, disrupted supply chains, dropping demand and short-time working schemes, the automotive industry faces even greater challenges than it had before the pandemic. What will the state of the industry look like after COVID-19? Will the trends that dominated the automotive industry pre-COVID still be relevant? With production restarting, these questions are top of the list for industry stakeholders.

While doing so, we must not lose sight of the persisting climate and ecological crisis. The European Green Deal provides us with a general roadmap to make the right choices in responding to the economic crisis while transforming Europe into a sustainable and climate-neutral economy.

Bio-based products and automotive

Global warming and limiting CO2 emissions are topics that need actions and planned operations not only by private bodies (such as companies), but also by the public bodies. European Commission and Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI-JU) have been acting on this topic since 2014. BBI-JU’s mission is to implement, under Horizon 2020 rules, the Strategic Innovation and Research Agenda (SIRA) developed by the industry and validated by the European Commission. It brings more than €3.7 billion investments in bio-based solutions.

Biocomposites, wood and natural fibres, reinforced plastics, natural rubber and some high-performance bio-based polymers are established materials in the automotive industry. The main reasons to use bio-based materials are a good cost-performance ratio or unique properties. The automotive sector does not see itself as being part of the bio-based economy. “Bio-based” is not a driver at the moment, and subsequently, there are no targets to increase the bio-based shares. However, more and more automotive manufacturers and suppliers are looking with particular interest to bio-based alternatives derived from renewable raw materials such as wood, flax, jute, sisal, cotton or coir, used as reinforcement materials, as well as reinforced or unreinforced biobased thermoplastics, thermoset or chemical building blocks. At present, the amount of plastic material in European motor cars is around 20% by weight, not including tyres.

BIOmotive project

Some private bodies see the possibility to implement and stress a circular economy approach in which the value chain of bio-based material can be implemented in industrial standard practice, including the automotive industry.

These actions are the driving forces that bring together the BIOmotive project – funded by BBI-JU. BIOmotive is paving the way for the production and subsequent market penetration of bio-based automotive interior parts with enhanced technical performance, improved environmental profile and economic competitiveness, with the aim of replacing its fossil-based, non-biodegradable counterparts.

The bio-based plastics which are currently used in the automotive industry are mainly derived from vegetable oils like soybean oil and castor oil. These pose serious environmental concern in terms of competition with the food and feed chains.

The goal of the BIOmotive project is to use monomers and polymers with sustainable, second-generation feedstock. It will also improve the mechanical and functional properties of developed bio-based solutions to compete with the products currently available in the market. Biobased polyurethanes have the potential to kickstart a new era in the application of biobased materials into the automotive sector, improving performance, cost, competitiveness and environmental sustainability – all paving the way towards mass use in the production of vehicles. From a scientific and technological perspective, BIOmotive project intends to demonstrate the production of bio-based raw materials and building blocks for the subsequent application in the formulation of bio-based polyesters-polyols and bio-based thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) and the production of novel cellulose-based regenerated fibres from paper pulp. From a final application perspective, BIOmotive aims to validate, on an industrial scale, the bio-based polymers in producing the interior of cars, such as the foams for production of bio-based seats and the regenerated fibre for producing bio-based textile seat covers.

Within the BIOmotive project, several renewable, competitive, and sustainable feedstocks will be used for the production of bio-based monomers, building blocks and polymers.

The first raw material is represented by wood pulp, and the second raw material by vegetable oils obtained by oil crops grown in marginal lands. These are not in competition with food and feed value chains (such as, but not limited to, cardoon crop.) Sugars from by-products of first and second-generation sugar feedstocks represent the third.

The project will be completed in May 2021. A year before its end, BIOmotive Consortium is still increasing its list of achievements, including such as:

  • Thermoplastic polyurethane granulate having 67% bio-carbon content (it has been prepared on optimised bio-raw materials.)
  • The first car part injections using this TPU have been done and injection process is being optimised.
  • Wood pulp sustainable production process has been optimised.
  • 57% bio-carbon containing 2k polyurethane foam has been made in real car seat production moulds (these foams have been integrated with BIOmotive bio-textiles as reinforcement allowing > 60% overall bio-carbon content in this part.)

Currently, performance optimisations of both materials (TPU and 2k foams) are underway as well as processability studies. The initial experimental data has been fed into preliminary life cycle analysis (LCA). The results of this preliminary study revealed that the project assumptions can be fulfilled. It is important because the BIOmotive project aims to reduce primary energy consumption. The project is complex – it also covers the techno-economic assessment, the standardisation and certification for new products or intellectual property studies. As a result of the project, the BIOmotive Consortium will be able to demonstrate the production of bio-based raw materials required for the final products (the demo production of azelaic acid, biobased 1,4-BDO, FDCA, regenerated cellulose fibres, TPU and 2k foams.) This is important for the automotive industry.

The BIOmotive project is dedicated to the automotive industry, but the involvement of external industrial players through targeted dissemination events will pave the way to the widening of the market of developed bio-materials: regenerated fibres from paper-grade wood pulp into textile production, biobased TPUs in nature-based solutions within the construction sector or 2k foams dedicated into the vertical gardens solutions.


Please note: This is a commercial profile

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