Bio-based Polymers & Composites: Dawn of a New Era?

Hello all,

As European leaders are engaged in discussions on how to prevent the Greek crisis contagion from spreading, the world looks for progress in Washington towards a vote to raise the debt ceiling and reduce the deficit by the August 2 deadline. No one would have ever imagined the current economic imbroglio at the start of the millennium year.

The heat is on in more ways than one.

With oil testing the $100 mark and continuing its roller coaster ride, leading multinationals have already begun charting a course that would make the world less dependent on the black gold. The current buzzwords are bio-polymers, bio-resins and, of course, bio-composites. Of special interest is the Dow-Mitsui partnership announced recently in becoming equal partners in Dow‘s sugarcane operation in Brazil; the JV will produce sugar cane-based ethanol which will then be used to make bio-polymers.


Image courtesy of Paramount Studios

Automakers (Ford, Toyota) are continuing their push into greater use of bio-resins for car parts. Plastics News reports that nylon, polypropylene, polyester and other resins made from natural resources such as sugar cane hold out the promise of a less expensive and stable source of raw material for plastics. Soy and castor-bean foam blends along with polylactic based plastics are used for interior parts in the Prius and other hybrids. The Prius also uses DuPont‘s Sorona bioresin (20-37% resin sourced from renewable plant sugar) for parts on the instrument panel air conditioning outlet.

In early July, KLM became the first airline in the world to operate a commercial flight on “biokerosene” which included renewable jet fuel. A 50/50 blend of conventional and  renewable jet fuel was used in both engines of a Boeing 737-800 aircraft that carried passengers from Amsterdam to Paris. On July 1, ASTM International that sets worldwide technical standards for the airline and other industries gave approval for carriers to mix fuel made from organic waste and non-food plants with kerosene, which is conveniently used to power planes. Airbus estimates, per Bloomberg, that by 2030, plant-derived formulas could make up as much as 30% of the market for aviation fuel.

With composites being used extensively in airplanes coupled with bio-fuels, travelers could be in for a unique flying experience in the near future.

Have you heard of the world’s lightest production two-wheeled electric vehicle? If not, please refer to Plastics & Rubber Weekly. It is an electrically assisted bicycle developed by a British company which used a 60% long glass-fiber reinforced nylon rear suspension unit with the main frame in magnesium. The surface finish was excellent in spite of the high glass content. More developments in LFT (long-fiber reinforced thermoplastics)….. European Plastics News reports a Dutch company having developed polypropylene based LFT (30 % glass content) solar photovoltaic modules to replace standard aluminum frames. Rapid assembly and disassembly, lower installation times and weight reduction are all the advantages that the composite offers for this application.

Ingenuity in design plus a yen for commercially viable applications is what makes composites such a fascinating proposition for numerous applications in a wide spectrum of market sectors.


More exciting news on carbon fiber composites awaits you! A revolutionary carbon-fiber aircraft (Solar Impulse HB-SIA) concluded its European tour in early July, marking a new era in terms of energy saving. The 12 1/2 hour flight was powered by solar energy alone! ” Another classic case of reduced dependence on fossil fuel”, was the statement issued by the European Commission. Thus far, three international flights have been completed in the European campaign. Around-the-world flights are scheduled in 2014.

An extraordinary example of what one can do with stored energy. And, of course, carbon fiber!

With natural gas in the news in a big way, the American government and industry plan to have a strategy for converting fleets to natural gas, including public transit and government fleets, heavy-duty freight fleets that currently rely on diesel, and light-vehicle fleets like taxis that can refuel at a single station. If passed, the NAT GAS Act would provide credits for companies to buy and manufacture natural gas vehicles and build refueling stations. Honda plans to sell its Civic Natural Gas in all 50 states in the U.S. this Fall.

Carbon fiber producers to a greater extent and glass fiber producers to a relatively lesser extent could reap significant benefits due to an increase in natural gas-powered vehicles through a big demand for cylinders for storing the gas.

Is fossil fuel exit more imminent and closer than we predicted? Not so fast…! This may just be the beginning (of the end)?

Engineering plastics demand in Europe grew by 30% in 2010 and poised for double-digit growth this year according to BASF. Excellent prospects have also been forecast for the U.K automotive industry according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT) which states that the global shortage of some components caused by the tsunami in Japan has failed to dent the performance of the U.K. automotive sector.

Finally, light at the end of the tunnel ? Apparently so, judging by views of market pundits. Touch wood!


A new EWEA report shows that by 2020, most EU countries would have tripled their wind power capacity reaching a total installed capacity of 230GW, providing 15.7% of EU electricity, depending on demand. 190GW of this would be onshore and 40GW offshore, mainly driven by a strong EU regulatory framework to 2020. China plans to expand its offshore wind power to 5 GW by 2015 and 30 GW by 2020 according to the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association (CREIA).

The winds of change are blowing pretty strongly, particularly offshore wind power; and,that too, across all continents. A global revolution in green energy in the making in a planned , structured manner.


Aging infrastructure is a perennial problem in many countries, especially the U.S. Following observations made by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) a couple of years ago, a collaborative effort made between universities in Europe and the U.S. has resulted in a novel method for the electronic continual monitoring of structures using a sensing skin made of stretchable thermoplastic elastomer mixed with titanium dioxide that is highly sensitive to cracks, with painted patches of black carbon that measure the change in electrical charge of the skin[R&D]. The sensing skin has the advantage of knowing the damage location at a pre-defined level of precision apart from sensing a change in the general performance of the structure.

Essentially, it is extremely heartening news for ascertaining conditions of bridges, dams , schools world over and a shot in the arm for the safety of civil infrastructure as it entails real-time information on structural “health”.

The debate on the American economy can be endless. ”Innovation is as American as apple pie”, as described by Time. There can be no two opinions of the fact that America’s future growth will have to come from industries that create new products and processes. In short, encouraging American innovation and restoring it to its past glory. Two recent reports from the Boston Consulting Group and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) found that, on the basis of innovation capacity (government funding for basic research, education and corporate-tax policies), the U.S. came last out of 40 countries analyzed.

Evidence that is neither startling nor surprising. Such has been the fall in America’s innovative capabilities – it’s forte until 2007.


Being vacation time at the ESSJAY offices, the next post will be published on September 5. Feel free to leave comments on the blog in the meantime, or send over an email or a tweet (contact details below).

We’d love to hear from our readers, and we’d like to thank  readers for our climbing readership numbers across 19 countries: we have DOUBLED over far less than a year’s time.

After Steve Martin’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles and the last decade’s teen hit American Pie, I’ll now remind you of yet another classic. To quote the famous Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) punchline: I’ll be back !


S. Sundaram
Twitter: @essjaycomposite

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