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Composites

Sustainable, bio-based materials for the automotive industry

Project aims to establish a UK supply chain for lignin-based composites.

7th February 2024

Innovation in Textiles
 |  United Kingdom

Transport/​Aerospace, Sustainable

Sonichem, the developer of a new ultrasonic biorefining process, is leading the £600,000 Innovate UK-funded CARMA – carbon-neutral agroforestry-derived resins to materials for automotive applications – project.

The transport sector is under significant pressure to decarbonise and sustainable fuel substitutes and anti-pollution directives are high on the agenda for many vehicle manufacturers. However, they are also actively seeking alternative methods of plastic, foam and composites production that will enable them to meet the increasing demand for new vehicles while achieving net-zero environmental targets.

Plastics, composites and synthetic fabrics have been used for an ever-increasing number of vehicle components over the last few decades – from dashboards, bodywork and seating to battery packs, fixings and thermal management systems in the latest electric vehicles – and typically account for 50% of total car volume today. The global transport sector generates over 350 million tons of plastic waste every year.

Biorefining

One emerging solution to this problem is biorefining, which offers a method of processing low-carbon feedstocks such as lignin into intermediate chemicals that can be made into renewable materials for vehicles, replacing fossil-derived chemicals and helping to lower the carbon emissions of automotive production. Lignin is the world’s second-most abundant natural biopolymer and presents a plentiful alternative to the finite, conventional petrochemical-based feedstocks currently used to produce plastics, resins and composites for the automotive industry. 

Traditional biorefining technologies, however, are not achieving their full potential, as they are inefficient and produce degraded and chemically altered lignin, discouraging uptake for performance applications. Most of these methods also use energy-intensive processes, generating greenhouse gas emissions, and ironically making them environmentally unsustainable. Commercial-scale biopolymer manufacturers produce low-grade lignin of high molecular weight, which limits their suitability for industrial applications and the small number of UK-based suppliers for these carbon-efficient feedstocks is forcing manufacturers to import raw materials from abroad at higher price points.

Ultrasonics

The unique patented technique developed by Melton Mowbray-based Sonichem uses ultrasound to fractionate woody biomass into hemicellulose sugars, microcrystalline cellulose and lignin, which can then be used as low-carbon feedstocks for platform chemicals used in a range of applications including pharmaceuticals, food and drink and cosmetics, as well as vehicles. The process efficiently extracts high-quality, low molecular weight lignin from UK-sourced Sitka spruce biomass – sawdust that is generated as a by-product of forestry operations – and denotes a major advance in biorefining. The lignin is also highly soluble in organic solvents, sulphur free, highly reactive and resistant to antioxidants and UV, making it extremely versatile.

CARMA Project

This technology is laying the groundwork for the shift away from current energy and resource-intensive bioprocessing and chemical manufacturing approaches. The CARMA consortium has been awarded almost £600,000 in funding through Innovate UK’s ‘Resource efficiency for materials and manufacturing’ (REforMM) collaborative research and development competition. The grant will cover over 70% of the total estimated costs for the project, with the remaining amount being funded by several members of the consortium.

The project will be undertaken jointly with the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), Scott Bader, the National Composites Centre (NCC), Polestar and SHD Composites, with each party bringing its own extensive expertise and technical knowledge to the table. CPI will support the optimisation and commercial scale-up of the existing Sonichem pilot plant to establish a financially viable and consistent supply of lignin for the resin and composite manufacturing sector. Scott Bader will explore the use of this lignin feedstock in existing technology platforms, and will work with NCC, while Polestar and SHD Composites aim to develop and test cost-effective and high-performance bio-derived resin formulations for automotive applications.

www.sonichem.com

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