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Put the Pedal to the Wood: New Biomaterials Produced from Forest Resources

August 12, 2016
Author: John Greene

As the pace of new technology quickens and continues to generate viable market opportunities for biochemicals, biofuels and other biobased products, wood raw materials will play an important role as an abundant, flexible and valuable feedstock. We recently reported on the breakthrough from Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology in the development of wood-based windows and solar panels, and a recent report confirms that researchers at Clemson University are eying a totally new market for biomaterials produced from forest residues: auto parts.

The new study, led by Srikanth Pilla of Clemson in collaboration with researchers from USDA Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, aims to convert trees that are removed during forest restoration projects into auto parts that will include bumpers and fenders. The US Department of the Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture is funding the $481,000 research project for five years. Pilla’s research will be based out of the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville, South Carolina.

The research itself is environmentally friendly from start to finish, and the team envisions most of the wood raw materials used in production coming from forest thinnings during routine management of working forests. As we recently noted, removing this excess material from the forest helps prevent catastrophic wildfires; researchers will have no need to cut down healthy trees that could be used for other purposes, Pilla added.

The team will be converting some of these trees into liquid suspensions of tiny rod-like structures with diameters 20,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Pilla is using these tiny structures, known as cellulosic nanomaterials, to develop new composite materials that could be shaped into automotive parts with improved strength. The auto parts would also be biorenewable, which means they could go to a composting facility rather than a landfill like most parts that cannot be repurposed. The research could help automakers meet automotive recycling regulations that have been adopted in Europe and could be adopted by the United States in the future.

Srikanth_Pilla.jpgSrikanth Pilla (left) will work on a USDA research project that aims to develop composites derived from wood raw materials for use in auto parts industry. (Photo: Craig Mahaffey)


Pilla is no stranger to creative problem solving, as he has established himself as a leading expert in designing next-generation automotive parts; he won the 2016 Robert J. Hocken Outstanding Young Manufacturing Engineer Award from the nonprofit student and professional organization Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME). He is also nearing the end of the first year of a separate $5.81-million, five-year grant from the Department of Energy. As part of that research, Pilla and his team are developing ultra-lightweight doors expected to help automakers in their race to meet federal fuel economy standards.


Benefits of Auto Parts Derived from Biomaterials

Cost Benefits

Pilla believes that the composite materials he is creating from wood resources to make bumpers and fenders will be less likely to distort or break on impact. “They will absorb the energy and just stay intact,” he said. “You won’t have to replace them because there will be no damage at all. Parts made with current materials might resist one impact. These will resist three or four impacts.”

A bumper or fender that could survive multiple accidents and still perform would create enormous value not only for car owners, but also for the insurance industry, which spends millions of dollars a year covering repairs of vehicles involved in low-speed accidents. Consider the following cost components of repairing a minor fender-bender:

  • Labor Time: 2 – 3 hours at $100/hour = $200 – $300
  • Paint Labor: 3 – 4 hours at $100/hour = $300 – $400
  • Paint Materials: 3 – 4 hours at $45/hour = $135 – $180
  • Parts: Average parts cost = $300 – $700
  • Total: Average costs between $930 – $1,600


Environmental Benefits

Craig Clemons, a materials research engineer at the Forest Products Laboratory and co-principal investigator on the project, said that the Forest Service wants to find large-volume uses for cellulosic nanomaterials. “We find appropriate outlets for all kinds of forest-derived materials. In this case, it’s cellulosic nanomaterials. We’re trying to move up the value chain with the cellulosic nanomaterials, creating high-value products out of what could otherwise be low-value wood. We’ll be producing the cellulosic nanomaterials, which are the most fundamental structural elements that you can get out of wood and pulp fibers. We’ll also be lending our more than 25 years of experience in creating composites from plastics and wood-derived materials to the project.”

Ted Wegner, assistant director at the Forest Products Laboratory, said that “The use of cellulosic nanomaterials will help meet the needs of people for sustainable, renewable and lightweight products while helping to improve the health and condition of America’s forests. The United States possesses abundant forest resources and the infrastructure to support a large cellulosic nanomaterials industry. Commercialization of cellulosic nanomaterials has the potential to create jobs, especially in rural America.”

This research could also grow in importance if the United States were to follow the European Union’s lead in setting requirements on the percentage of vehicle components that must be recovered and recycled at the end of its life. “In the U.S., such legislation is not yet here, but it could make its way here,” Pilla added.

Robert Jones, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at Clemson said that “The research that Srikanth Pilla is doing with the USDA Forest Service is a creative way of using what might otherwise be a low-value wood product to strengthen automobile parts. It’s even better that these parts are biorenewable. The research is good for the Earth in more ways than one.”

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