September 30th, 2020 by Tina Casey
Porsche Motorsport premiered its much-anticipated Cayman 718 GT4 CS MR swathed in sustainable fiber bodywork at the Nürburgring 24-hour endurance race last week, where stormy weather and a suspected COVID-19 outbreak muddled up the outcome quite a bit. One thing is clear, though. Bio-based car parts will play a key role in the sparkling green bioeconomy of the future, and what you see zooming around the race track of today could be parked in your driveway tomorrow.
What’s The Big Deal About A Sustainable Gasmobile?
The Cayman 718 GT4 CS MR is not an electric vehicle, but Porsche is fond of pointing out that it did jumpstart the early days of electric drive back in the 1890s. The company’s interest in zero emission mobility continued into the early 1900s after it joined Hofwagenfabrik Ludwig Lohner & Co.
Mr. Lohner earned his place in automotive history by observing that the air was being “ruthlessly spoiled by the large number of petrol engines in use,” but what with electric vehicles of the day weighing in at two tons and not going very far on a charge, that thought was shelved for another 100 years or so, until the company re-entered the 100% electric car field with the Taycan EV.
Connecting the dots, the Cayman’s new sustainable fiber parts weigh less, cost less, and perform as well as their non-sustainable counterparts, which could ripple on over to impact the ranges and price points for the Taycan and other EVs rolled out by Porsche in the future. After all, an EV battery loves nothing more than lighter weight.
More Sustainable Fiber For The EV Of The Future Bioeconomy
Porsche started off its sustainable fiber journey last year with just two doors and the rear wing. The Cayman steps it up more than a few notches.
“Now for the first time, the front and rear aprons, the front spoiler, front and rear lids as well as the mudguards and diffuser including the aerodynamic fins are also made of this regenerative material,” Porsche enthused in a press release last week. “These materials replace the metal and plastic injection moulded components of the production sports car.”
“In terms of weight and stiffness, the recyclable natural-fibre composite materials of non-structural components share properties similar to carbon-fibre composites (CFRP) and meet the same high safety and quality standards,” Porsche continued.
What’s All This About Sustainable Carbon Fiber?
Got all that? Good! The company responsible for the fiber parts is the Swiss firm Bcomp, which bills itself as “a leader in sustainable lightweighting solutions using natural fibres.”
CleanTechnica reached out to Bcomp for the inside scoop on what kind of natural fiber is involved in the Cayman project, there being so many of them from which to choose. They haven’t gotten back to us as of this writing, but one good guess would be the humble flax plant, which is featured on the company’s website.
The idea of using plants as a sustainable replacement for petroleum in carbon fiber production has been kicking around for a while, but Bcomp goes into detail about several other important sustainability angles at play.
“Flax is an indigenous plant that grows naturally in Europe and has been part of the agricultural history for centuries. It requires very little water and nutrients to grow successfully,” Bcomp explains. “In addition, it acts as a rotational crop, thus enhancing harvests on existing farmland.”
For sustainability bonus points, growing a healthy crop of flax does not require chemical inputs that could contaminate groundwater. Bcomp also points out that flax processing is a local industry that supports local jobs and rural economic development.
The company’s primary natural fiber product is powerRibs™, which it describes as a “lightweight, high performance natural fibre reinforcement grid” inspired by the veins of a leaf. It can replace or reinforce carbon fibers. For those of you keeping score at home, it can also reinforce glass fiber.
According to Bcomp, the use of flax results in a 75% reduction in the CO2 footprint compared to conventional carbon fiber, along with a more sustainable lifecycle and a material savings of up to 30% among other advantages.
As for that thing about rotational crops, that refers to concerns about competition with land for food. Porsche notes that it has been collaborating with the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture and the Fraunhofer WKI since 2016 in addition to its relationship with Bcomp.
Meanwhile, US Eyeballs Sustainable Bio-based Economy Of The Future
US car buyers may have to wait a while before they can bathe in the sustainable plant-based glory of a Porsche electric vehicle outfitted with flax body parts.
In the meantime, car makers are in hot pursuit of more sustainable materials for car parts. Ford has been front in center in the bio-based field, experimenting with soy, castor, wheat, kenaf, cellulose, wood, dandelions, coconut, rice, and agave among others.
Mazda has also been promoting bio-based materials for EV interiors.
Not to be caught asleep at the wheel, the US Department of Energy has also been taking steps to promote the emerging bioeconomy. Aside from numerous biofuel projects, the agency is taking a keen look into other areas.
In the latest development, last week the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory announced a new funding pot of $40 million for 11 projects to grease the bioeconomy wheels.
The aim is to scale up applications that show significant potential during the R&D phase.
Aside from a strong focus on biofuels, the award-winning projects include converting biocrude into graphite and hard carbon, for use in lithium-ion and sodium-ion batteries.
That project joins North Carolina State University, Yale, and the Battery Innovation Center collaboration in Indiana with the firms Ensyn, Birla Carbon, and Zeton Inc. in an effort to scale up a new conversion system for biomass pyrolysis oil.
Juicing algae growth with ambient air carbon capture is another area of focus, leading to food products in addition to fuels. Apparently the Energy Department still has faith in algae biofuel, despite some ups and downs in the market.
Carbon recycling efforts are also included, with projects involving the production of formic acid production, and the transformation of carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.
If that thing about CO2-to-CO rings a bell, you may be thinking of the membrane specialist Dioxide Materials. The firm has crossed the CleanTechnica radar for its work in the green hydrogen field, and now it has taken carbon conversion under its wing.
Interesting! Putting two and two together, the new round of funding aims to squeeze oil and gas out of the transportation fuel market while narrowing the window on petrochemicals and coal conversion, too.
So much for saving all your coal jobs.
It’s also interesting that the new round of funding includes an award for next-generation plastic recycling. The petrochemical industry failed to account for lifecycle impacts in their profit calculations, but perhaps the bioplastic manufacturers of the future will take a more sustainable tack.
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Photo: Sustainable carbon fiber bodywork courtesy of Bcomp, via email.
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About the Author
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.