UK Consortium to Commercialize Plastic Alternative for Automotive Materials

Car interior

(Credit: Unsplash)

by | Feb 1, 2024

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Sonichem has received a United Kingdom-backed grant to develop and commercialize carbon-neutral resins as an alternative to plastics and foams used in automotive applications.

The grant will cover 70% of the costs for the company’s carbon-neutral agroforestry-derived resins (CARMA) project, which will work to establish a lignin supply chain within the U.K. Sonichem’s process uses ultrasound to break down woody biomass, or byproducts of forestry operations, to create a low molecular weight lignin that may be used in vehicles, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and more.

Lignin is the second-most abundant natural biopolymer in the world and may act as an alternative for petrochemical-based materials. Sonichem explains that current refining technologies for the material use energy-intensive processes, and most biopolymer manufacturers produce low-grade lignin that isn’t suitable for industrial applications.

The CARMA project will be jointly undertaken by the Centre for Process Innovation, Scott Bader, the National Composites Centre, Polestar, and SHD Composites.

Automotive Industry Turns to Bio-Based Materials to Further Net-Zero Goals

The automotive industry has received significant attention for developing electric vehicles and implementing alternative fuels to shift away from its heavy reliance on fossil fuels. A lesser-known development, however, is that many car companies are exploring how they may use alternative materials to replace plastic, which is commonly used for vehicle components like dashboards, bodywork, and seating.

The global transport sector reportedly generates over 350 million tons of plastic waste each year, and most are not recovered from end-of-life vehicles, instead ending up in landfills.

The amount of plastics in automobiles from 2012 to 2021 has also increased by 16% according to a report from the American Chemistry Council. The report also explains that using plastics in cars offers a range of benefits — it is a comparatively lightweight material and may absorb crash energy better than steel.

Nonetheless, plastic pollution is a significant contributor to global emissions, causing an estimated 2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year and representing about 3.4% of global emissions totals. Plastic alternatives made from biomaterials, lignin included, maintain the same benefits of plastic without such a massive environmental impact.

With the CARMA project, Sonichem said it aims to support net-zero vehicle manufacturing and reduce the automotive sector’s reliance on plastics, also hoping to help scale the industry for car companies to gain access to cost-effective bio-based materials.

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