Thermoplastic Innovation for Renewable Materials in Automotive

While the complications of climate change continue to dominate headlines, many individuals are jumping on board to find ways to preserve the environment—and corporations are no exception. From food to clothing, companies are doing their best to comply with society’s demands to do their part. On the downside, these efforts to boost sustainability run into practical issues. Consider the topic of renewable energy – many resources have been pooled into making renewable fuels a widely adopted reality, but with the price of fossil fuels remaining consistently low, they simply have no way to compete.

Despite the problems, specialty chemicals companies haven’t given up on applying sustainability strategies to their products. It simply means they need to shift focus for the time being. Instead of concentrating on renewable fuels, what if they looked into developing necessary products that are crucial to other industries? One such area ripe for opportunity is thermoplastics. An important material with automotive and commodity applications, green thermoplastic innovations could be one way to continue prioritizing sustainability while also aiming for market advantage.

Thermoplastics Innovations Can Improve Upon Existing Products

For the past few years, companies have been working on polymers derived from plant-based sources instead of petrochemical ones. In addition to developing materials that are comparable to conventional polymers, their strategy involves keeping them cost-effective as well.1 But it appears that not only are scientists striving for comparable performance, they’re seeking better performance as well.

Researchers recently unveiled a green thermoplastic that performs better than several key commodity polymers. Alongside the notable fact that it is made from 50% renewable materials, the green thermoplastic can be melted up to three times and still meet acceptable performance standards. Called ABL for acrylonitrile, butadiene, lignin, the thermoplastic is ten times stronger than ABS (acrylonitrile, butadiene, styrene)—a common component in medical devices, car bumpers and toys like Lego bricks.2 As if that weren’t enough to demonstrate what thermoplastic innovations were capable of, the entire production process is solvent-free. In effect, widespread adoption of ABL would reduce the need for petrochemical use.

Thermoplastic Innovations Can Capitalize on Untapped Sources

The derivation of ABL from the biomass byproduct stream opens up an entire world of potential renewable polymer feedstock of biorefineries, pulp, and paper mills. The success of ABL stems from strengthening lignin, which remains commercially underutilized in comparison to other natural polymers such as cellulose.3 The process to do so involves overcoming several factors:

● Producing a superior material from feedstock prone to variation
● Integrating lignin successfully into soft polymer matrices
● Understanding the behavior and properties of lignin-derived polymers so that traits of lignin-based thermoplastics can be better controlled

Furthermore, lignin’s properties vary depending upon the plant from which it originates. Identifying the optimal source is a crucial step of developing thermoplastics targeting specific industries.

Companies seeking to use thermoplastic innovations to create products for specialized markets such as the automotive industry will need methodology that enables their R&D scientists to answer these questions and apply them to the material development process. Finding the best natural polymers requires researchers to explore different feedstocks and the advantages and disadvantages of their respective qualities. They will need to ascertain how performance correlates to feedstock processing and material structure. Modeling the structures of these potential biomass-derived polymers will be essential during the R&D process since not only does it allow researchers to identify promising materials for further study and testing, it makes the process of screening out less ideal candidates easier.

Thermoplastic innovations are an attractive way for specialty chemicals firms to work on bringing sustainability to various industries such as the automotive field, which requires unique polymers for many of its products. With the success of developing a green thermoplastic made of 50% renewable materials, the question is raised as to how can this be further improved. Can a green thermoplastic made of 75% renewable materials be made? What about 100%? Widespread renewable fuel sources may not be on the immediate horizon, but perhaps green thermoplastic innovations are.

Learn here how a powerful modeling and simulation environment can enable R&D laboratories to test and screen potential materials through predicting properties and behavior. With regards to thermoplastics, understanding how the polymer will behave is crucial to ascertaining performance quality. Some thermoplastic uses require higher levels of toughness while others emphasize pliability. Being able to determine a material’s potential will boost thermoplastic innovations while streamlining the development process and help you create new and innovative green polymers.

1 “Engineering Thermoplastics Are Going ‘Green’,” May 2015, http://www.ptonline.com/articles/engineering-thermoplastics-are-going-green
2 “New ‘green’ thermoplastic is 10 times tougher than ABS,” March 23, 2016, http://www.plasticstoday.com/automotive-and-mobility/new-%E2%80%98green%E2%80%99-thermoplastic-10-times-tougher-abs/146583390624359
3 “Researchers invent tougher plastic with 50 percent renewable content,” March 22, 2016, http://phys.org/news/2016-03-tougher-plastic-percent-renewable-content.html

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