If vehicle manufacturers are to meet the increasingly challenging emission targets, and offer their customers improved fuel economy, it is crucial to engage in lightweighting –not just of parts and systems, but also of materials. While there is a lot of talk about downsizing of engines and the use of injection moulded automotive parts to make vehicles lighter and efficient, the development and subsequent use of greener materials would help push the efficiency envelope further.
There are some global examples of high-end vehicles using biofibres and biomaterials,and researchers believe use of these materials will become more common in the near future. These materials posses certain inherent characteristics – they are environmentally friendly, light and are recyclable.
Canola oil, rapeseed oil, palm oil, soybean oil and flax fibres are just a few bio options researchers have been working on for some years now. Ford Motor Co successfully used soy-based polyurethane foam seat cushions and seatbacks in many of its products.Headliners made of soy-foam have resulted in a 25 % weight savings for Ford, as compared to traditional glass-mat headliner.
Manufacturers in India are essentially looking at reducing the number of vehicle parts,or combining different parts into a single unit to bring down the over weight of the vehicle. The use of plastics is now starting to increase, with OEMs like Maruti Suzuki and Toyota Kirloskar Motors using plastic fuel tanks that help make their vehicles lighter. Composite materials too are considered prohibitive, owing to its cost.
In India, one of the initial experiments was undertaken by the Birla Jute Industries Ltdon jute composites, which was used for fabrication of automobile interiors (door panels).With increasing emphasis on fuel efficiency, it is believed that jute composites would enjoy wider acceptance in the automotive industry. There are examples of basic research happening in India on the use of biomaterials in automobiles. It however, remains to be seen how much of that gets commercialised in the near future.
Deepangshu Dev Sarmah
New Delhi, July 2012