Qinetiq is leading a UK project to develop plant fibres for environmentally-friendly vehicle components.

Car body materials are to be grown from plants in a UK project to reduce the environmental impact of vehicles while increasing their safety and fuel efficiency.

The Qinetiq-led Biomat project, which also includes Ford, will develop technologies to enhance the performance of plant fibres for use in injection moulded thermoplastic composites.

Funded by the Department for the Environment, the project aims to reduce the car industry’s reliance on unsustainable materials, by using fibres from plants such as flax and hemp to build composite parts.

Under EU legislation, cars must be made from 95 per cent recyclable material by 2015. Plant fibres are relatively easy to recycle, and require low amounts of energy to manufacture.

But natural fibres also offer additional benefits over man-made materials, according to Ford. ‘Natural fibres are very good at absorbing energy, allowing us to produce much tougher panels for enhanced safety,’ said Ford spokesman Gary White.Using components made from natural fibre composites also reduces the weight of the vehicle, improving its fuel economy, he said.

During the four-year project, the research team will use various forms of flax, hemp and coppice willow to develop the materials, and will also study injection moulding techniques.

Plant fibres are already used in some car components, such as the door panel trim on the Ford Focus, but the project intends to maximise the potential of biofibres, said Qinetiq’s Robert West, Biomat project leader. ‘We aim to produce strong, structural components, such as pedal boxes, rather than the cosmetic applications they are generally used for at the moment. Car bodies will be possible in the longer term.’

During the first year of the project, the team will develop techniques for extracting fibres from the plants to produce longer, stronger fibres than existing materials, said West. The researchers will then seek to maximise the bond between the matrix and the fibres using chemicals developed by Qinetiq, including coupling agents.

‘At the end of four years we will have produced demonstrator components, which will be road tested within the Ford group, and will allow very rapid exploitation of components within Ford cars,’ West said.

The project partnership also includes Visteon Automotive Systems, Enginuity, and the Biocomposites Centre at the University of Wales, as well as fibre specialists Hemcore and BioFibre.

Composites are increasingly being used by car manufacturers to build strong, lightweight and more efficient vehicles. Cranfield University recently announced it is to build a carbon-fibre concept car that would weigh half as much a metal equivalent and achieve 115 miles to the gallon.

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