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Environmentally Friendly Materials Used in the Automobile Industry

written by: •edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 4/15/2011

Environmentally friendly materials used in the automobile industry are being produced from agricultural plants.These will replace plastics, textiles and foam currently being produced from hydrocarbons. The Ford Model U has been in production for some years, using most of these renewable materials.

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    Introduction to Renewable Materials Used in Automobile Industry

    When an automobile is scrapped, it is normally recycled to reclaim the ferrous and non ferrous metals. Most of the recycled material comes from the car steel body which after shredding and ferrous/nonferrous separation, is compacted into a small metal cube. However, following the shredding process the plastics, foam, rubber and fabrics, are difficult and uneconomical to remove and the vast majority of these are sent to landfills.

    All of this, however, is about to change. Modern technology has produced some amazing bio-materials which can replace some of these materials currently being sent to landfills.

    This is an article on the use of oils extracted from agricultural plants as a means of producing these materials for application in the automobile industry. We begin with a look at the plants most commonly used with a basic description of their processing.

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    Processing of Agricultural Plants

    Natural agricultural crops such as soy bean, corn and sunflower seed oils contain the carbon which they had absorbed during photosynthesis. The carbon and fatty acid components are extracted from the oil to produce the different biomaterials.

    Soybean Oil

    Soybean oil was processed by Henry Ford as long ago as the mid 1930’s, for automobile body paint and shock-absorber fluid. This relationship with soybean oil has carried on through decades by the Ford Automobile Industry, their latest Ford Model U car incorporating many components made from soybean oil.

    Soybeans are cultivated in a warm climate, not only producing very exploitable oil but also adding nitrogen to the soil by fixation.

    The process begins with either pressing the beans or solvent extraction to remove the oil, which contains a number of fatty acids. It is these acids, particularly the oleic acid, that are subjected to synthetic organic chemistry. Here modifications to the oil enzymes are carried out and using the latest polymers design expertise, a toxin-free polymer is obtained. This is used to produce plastics and foam using environmentally friendly materials for automobiles.

    Corn oil

    Corn oil is also being processed to produce fabrics and plastics used in the automobile industry. This is produced by the fermentation of the corn oil starches or sugars, and with further processing using copper as a catalyst, propylene glycol is formed from which synthetic fabrics and plastics can be produced.

    Sunflower Seeds

    The sunflower seed oil is used to produce synthetic lubricants used in the automobile industry.

    Oil can be extracted by first washing the seeds, then boiling to soften for removal of hull. The seeds are then squeezed in presses to obtain the oil, which is hydrolyzed to extract the fatty acids, particularly oleic. These acids are then further processed by selective combination techniques to produce synthetic oils and greases from the esters (esters are formed by a combination of organic acid, alcohol and a catalyst).

    Defatted Soy Flour

    This is currently being investigated as an alternative to carbon black, a compound which gives the tire its endurance and friction properties. Carbon black is normally produced from hydrocarbon processing, but research and development into reuse of carbon black by recycling the rubber tires is ongoing.

    Defatted soy flour is now being used as synthetic black ink, so the carbon black alternative should not be far away.

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    Biomaterial Used in Automobile Components

    There are now numerous automobile components manufactured from renewable sources, which are completely biodegradable. These are being used instead of hydrocarbon extracts.

    • Soy Beans – processed to produce synthetic plastics used in dashboards, tailgates, internal and external trims. Also used to produce the foam used as filling in seat and backrest padding, headrests and sound insulation.
    • Corn processed to produce the fabrics which are used to cover upholstery, also being used as floor carpets, door and roof linings.
    • Sunflower Seeds processed to produce synthetic oils and greases, normally produced from hydrocarbon processing.

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    Summary

    Most plastics, foam and fabrics used in today’s automobile industry are not recycled due to being uneconomic to separate from the main recyclable materials.

    However, synthetic materials made from agriculturally grown plants have been developed which could assist in achieving the proposed new car component recycling targets. In the US, these are already being applied by the Ford Motor Company in their Ford U Model, being part of their commitment over the years to use more environmentally friendly materials for automotive components.

    These renewable materials comprising of plastics, foam and fabrics are produced from the oils containing carbon dioxide and glucose extracted from soy and corn plants. These oils are then transformed through synthetic organic chemistry and polymer technology into polymers.