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Team looks at possibility of biodegradable cars

Cars could one day become biodegradable using materials under development at Sheffield University.

Researchers are working with an oil palm fibre manufacturer to design a substance for building car body panels that are partly decomposable and partly recyclable, with the hope of then creating a material that could biodegrade completely.

The Sheffield team hopes to combine natural oil palm fibres, which are currently used in construction to prevent soil erosion, with synthetic resins to create a stiff, strong and waterproof substance.

‘The technical difficulty is that these natural fibres don’t normally like the synthetic matrix that we have but we have to bring them together by some sort of mechanical or chemical adhesion,’ Dr Elaheh Ghassemieh at the Sheffield Polymer Centre told The Engineer.

‘At the same time natural fibres like moisture and, by absorption of moisture, they change their properties immensely so all of a sudden you will have a swollen composite with much reduced strength.’

The material will be designed so that the synthetic resin can be removed and recycled, leaving the fibre to degrade. Ghassemieh expects the material would need to last for at least eight years to be of use to car manufacturers.

Oil palm fibres are typically processed for industrial use so the researchers may go back and change this initial stage to make the fibres more suitable. In particular, the fibres degrade at a relatively low temperature, which limits the traditional processing options and quality of the product.

‘The manufacturers of this fibre have never looked at what we want to do so they haven’t processed it according to our needs,’ said Ghassemieh.

The team hopes to have the part-recyclable material complete within three years, before moving onto the fully decomposable version that will use natural resins. Ghassemieh is also involved in research to develop biodegradable packaging from similar fibres.

‘The fully biodegradable material is very ambitious because the natural resins that we’ve got at the moment don’t have all the properties that are needed,’ she said.

Interest in sustainable car manufacturing has increased over the last decade due to EU End of Life Vehicles (ELV) Directive, which requires manufacturers to cover all or most of the cost of all motor vehicle disposals.

Ghassemieh plans to approach manufacturers once the research is at a more advanced stage. ‘Car manufacturers are one of the most resistant groups to change in terms of new materials so it’s not going to be easy,’ she said.

‘I’m hoping that as the regulations become tighter it will force them to make the move. Consumer motivation is very small apart from among people who really care about the environment.’

Readers' comments (9)

  • British Leyland were building bio-dgradable cars 30 years ago. I had several; a Metro, an Allegro, a Montego.

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  • Yes so did Alfa in the 80's, My GTV went from new to scrapped in just over 5 yrs !!

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  • Anonymous was being rather derogatory about BL, however some Morris Minors and Minis did have biodegradeable components. The travellers had a wooden frame which, if not adequately protected from the weather, could suffer from dry rot.
    I helped a colleague replace the frame of a Minor Traveller which had had mushrooms growing on it. For two weeks he drove around with no frame and hence no windows but the roof cantilevering 6ft over the rear half of the car.
    Racing cars have been constructed from moulded ply. This would be a biodegradeable body shell.

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  • Someone take Dr Ghassemieh to Malvern Link.

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  • "the material would need to last for at least eight years to be of use to car manufacturers"

    I wouldn't buy a new car with a body that may only last 8 years!

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  • I wonder how they will assess the bodywork condition at the MOT test - stick a fork in it?
    Has it been a slow news week? The whole idea is ludicrous as nearly all cars are monocoques with most panels being stress-bearing components, if the underside degrades faster then upper surfaces the car might snap on encountering a speed bump or other irregularity. The whole idea that cars should be viewed as readily disposable items is objectionable – manufacturers could make the bodies last as long as they wanted but that wouldn’t suit the needs of capitalism.
    If the bodies were better corrosion protected then mechanical components could be changed as they wore out.

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  • An eight year life cycle would be fine if the panels are cheap and can be easily replaced, otherwise surely its a non-starter? Of course the chassis would have to be designed to suit this application and another British car springs to mind. Palm leaf clad Rover P6 anyone?

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  • I am struggling to see the novelty of this work...

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  • What this project is following is nothing new. Iagree with Peter!!!!

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