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Sustainability solutions for automotive interiors in a changing world

Dr George Kellie, director of Kellie Solutions Ltd, focuses on developments in plastics and non-woven materials, and how these are driving sustainability improvements.

What is your presentation about?

Internationally there is strong, and very evident, rapid growth and drive for new-generation materials offering genuinely sustainable solutions. The automotive industry is clearly faced with sustainability challenges, at the same time as dramatic changes are taking place in powertrains; also, this is a time of very demanding emissions legislation. There are some exciting materials solutions available that can meet many of these challenges simultaneously. I will focus on developments in plastics and non-woven materials in this very timely presentation.

Who is driving the push for sustainable solutions? Why?

Cars are believed to be responsible for about 12% of total EU emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). That fact alone sets the agenda. The drive for sustainable solutions is coming from a wide range of directions. One visible factor is the pressure from legislation, both nationally and at EU and US government level. These are principally focused on CO2 emissions, although other factors are covered. For example, from 2021, but phased in from 2020, the EU fleet-wide average emission target for new cars is 95g CO2/km. This is a demanding target. Outside this, there is a strong perception by many of the auto companies that they must offer genuinely sustainable solutions that will meet their customers’ aspirations and expectations. They are very aware that consumer attitudes are also changing dramatically, with questions about the use of plastics, for example. In addition, there are consumers who have real concerns about the use of specific materials such as leather.

What is the biggest environmental challenge for the auto industry? Emissions? Recycling? Sustainable materials?

All of the above!

A key driver that brings it all together has been the drive to reduce vehicle weight. Typically, it has been estimated that a 10% reduction in vehicle weight can lead to an 8% improvement in fuel economy.

The plastics and non-woven industries have been moving dramatically and bringing forward a whole range of options. Lightweight plastics and composites have been at the forefront of these programs.

At the same time, there has been a substantial uplift in the use of recycled plastics.
Non-wovens are particularly useful as they are able to accommodate a variety of plastic materials but also can make use of natural fibers. For example, we are seeing growth in the use of materials such as viscose, bamboo and cotton. Natural-fiber composites in automotive are enjoying good growth with a CAGR in excess of 7% pa.

What recent developments in plastics and non-woven materials have been made?

An example is the use of non-wovens made with polyester fibers made from plastic bottles, as components for composite body undershields. These shields are not only lighter than traditional underbody materials such as steel, but they also contribute to improved underbody air flow and improved fuel efficiency.

Volvo has set a target that at least 25% of the plastics used in its new cars will be from recycled materials starting in 2025. This is sparking a range of developments.

How can these new materials aid in sustainability?

Natural-fiber solutions are really important. In the last 10 years, natural-fiber composites of thermoplastics and thermosets have been used for door panels, seat backs, headliners, package trays, dashboards and trunk liners. In most cases they displace a non-renewable oil-based material source with a renewable fiber often derived from sources that only a few years earlier would have been seen as waste.

Bioplastics are also growing. PLA (polylactic acid) bioplastics are increasingly used for automotive applications from under-the-hood parts to more visible interior components.

Don’t miss George Kellie’s presentation at the Future of Automotive Interiors Conference Europe. More information about the conference and its most current line-up can be found here.

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