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Ford goes further with renewable nanomaterials

JAN BOTTIGLIERI

The following article will appear in the May/June issue of Paper360°, and is offered as a special "sneak peek" for AoTC readers. To hear Dr. Kiziltas' keynote presentation, attend the TAPPI Nano Conference.

Can nanocellulose really offer automotive manufacturers better performance, at a lower cost, with a greener footprint? Maybe Billy Ocean said it best: "Get out of my dreams… and into my car."
At the nanoscale, a material's physical properties can change dramatically, due to the high ratio of surface area to volume of nanoparticles. This means that nanomaterials can be engineered to have a variety of valuable properties, including higher strength and lighter weight. When these high-potential materials are made of cellulose, the opportunities are too good to pass up—particularly in a highly competitive, innovation-minded industry like automotive manufacturing.

Detroit-based automotive giant Ford Motor Company started its sustainable biomaterials and plastics research program in 2001, and the group was the first to demonstrate soy-based foam that met all the requirements for automotive seating. Today, Ford is already using renewable materials in production vehicles, and is committed to expanding the applications.

To learn more, Paper360° spoke with Alper Kiziltas, a lead research scientist with the Sustainability and Emerging Materials Research group at Ford. Dr. Kiziltas' work has focused on sustainable materials such as bio-based and recycled resins, natural fiber composites, and nanofillers-reinforced foams and composites. He is a graduate of the University of Maine, where he received his Master's and Ph.D. degrees from the School of Forest Resources.

P360: Can you tell us a little about how Ford is using nanocellulose? What materials and applications are you most excited about?

Kiziltas: Ford currently has eight renewable materials in production vehicles, including soy oil-based polyol, cellulose, wheat straw, rice hulls, castor oil-based polyol, wood, kenaf, and coconut fibers. Ford scientists are continuing to search for innovative and creative sustainable technologies that can reduce our dependence on petroleum.

We are getting the nanocellulose in many different forms, including cellulose nanocrystals, nanofibrillated cellulose, and cellulose filaments. This really reflects our interest in all nanocellulose materials. Right now, we're using a small amount of nanocellulose material in different polymer matrices. But using even these small amounts of nanomaterials, we are getting significant improvements in materials' properties.

We are trying to incorporate nanocellulose materials mostly for body interior applications such as seat foams and plastics, door panels, console substrates, wire harnesses, etc. We would also like to use nanocellulose for exterior and under-the-hood applications. Using nanocellulose materials or natural fibers for exterior and under-the-hood applications presents challenges. Compared to carbon fiber, glass fiber, and talc, nanocellulose has a lower thermal stability. That's really important, especially in under-the-hood applications. Utilization of nanocellulose as reinforcement in composites for exterior applications has also been limited by their susceptibility to moisture absorption.

Having said that, we love challenges! When we see a challenge, we just like to dive more in-depth to find out how we can solve the problem. We are a car company; we're always trying to improve the vehicles we produce. But we're also trying to help academia and industry solve the challenges in the nanotech world. We are conducting experiments and finding new approaches to increase thermal stability to use nanocellulose in engineering plastics, reduce water uptake, and improve compatibility of nanocellulose with hydrophobic polymers using different surface functionalizations. In addition, most companies can provide the materials in liquid media; there's no issue getting the materials that way, and it's really cost effective. But for a compounding process, a high percent of water is just too much to handle. So we are trying to develop alternative methods for handling this huge amount of water, so we can use cellulosic materials in more of our processes.

Why is Ford so interested in nanomaterials?
The automotive industry is changing at a pace never experienced before, and we must continue to lightweight our vehicles through the use of strong, low density, and cost effective materials that lower our environmental impact. We truly believe the inclusion of a small amount of cellulose nanomaterials can provide a promising platform for the automotive industry to achieve the objectives of cost reduction, lightweighting, and sustainability.

So really that's the trifecta: it's better environmentally, it's cost effective, and it gives you lightweight components.
That's correct. We'd love to use more material from nature. We believe as a company that nanocellulose-based materials are going to have a significant role in the nano arena. We also see significant benefit in using nanomaterials in automotive applications. Also, in comparison to other types of nanomaterials, nanocellulose can be less expensive and safer to use.

How does the use of bio-based materials give Ford a market advantage?  
Every day, Ford works to improve the overall picture: to make better products, using more advanced and sustainable materials, and continue being a leader in our industry. Using nanocellulose materials really lines up with those objectives: Being first in the market, being green, and providing better materials for our customers. Work focusing on the cellulose reinforced polymer nanocomposites for lightweight applications should build on Ford's current strengths, and provide an excellent opportunity for national and international visibility in advanced and sustainable materials.

What do you feel is the biggest practical challenge to commercialization right now?
Commercialization of nanocellulose is not completely established. There are a few companies—some startups, and a few big producers—and there are several universities giving nanocellulose a research and development perspective. We would like to see the government provide more support for the development of these materials. In Europe, where sustainability is a higher priority to consumers and leadership alike, researchers are much more aggressive in the nanocellulose field than North America.
The biggest hurdle right now in the nanocellulose area is getting material in a dry form. For most of our current applications, the nanocellulose needs to be dry and mixed with polymers. Cellulosic nanomaterials are plentiful in nature—they come from trees and other natural sources—but you still need to dry the materials to use in a compounding process. This is where most of the cost is involved—setting up a drying process for this material.

Universities and research organizations are already testing different drying methods, like spray drying and freeze drying. Hopefully they'll come up with proven methods that can produce nanoscale materials cost-effectively for industry use.

How can companies producing nanocellulose materials partner with large manufacturers like Ford to develop and deliver the materials you need?
Ford is always looking for new ideas—a new approach. We have our own research facilities at Ford, and we have the capability to compound nanocellulose with different polymers, injection mold the compounds, and test their properties relative to our requirements. Once we establish that there are no problems using the materials for the targeted applications, we can look at the big picture. How many pounds of materials do we need? Do we think a particular supplier can provide enough nanocellulose materials for us?

At this point, there are companies that can produce enough nanomaterials, but we still need to find a way to produce the material even more cost-effectively. Nanomaterials are competing with talc-filled or glass-filled materials in automotive applications, and they're very inexpensive. So we need to make sure nanocellulose materials are able to compete. 

So one key is for researchers and manufacturers to get potential end-users involved very early in the research process.           
That's correct. We can make sure that, from a technical standpoint, the material works—it will give us light weight, it gives us a better environmental picture, and it will meet all of our stringent performance requirements. But we also have to make the business case.

Besides automotive manufacturing, do you see opportunity for other industries to use more nanocellulose products?
Well, there are certainly applications in the pulp and paper industry, due to the good water absorption behavior of nanocellulose materials. There are a lot of biomedical applications as well. To date, we've focused on using nanocellulose for composites and paper products, but more research should be done in biomedical materials research. Again, there's so much cool research going on in Europe in biomedical use of nanocellulose. There is also a lot of potential in one of the biggest technology trends right now around the world: additive manufacturing/3D printing.

You'll be the Keynote Speaker for TAPPI's International Nanotechnology Conference. What will attendees learn from your presentation?
I really want to deliver the message from the automotive industry that we have a huge interest in nanocellulose materials. I want to show how we are using nanocellulose materials—or how we are imagining we can use nanocellulose materials—for our applications, and I want to share our challenges with nanocellulose materials. Maybe we can get some help from academia and other industries to help us solve certain problems. We can be very successful if we work together, and I believe we can solve most of these problems efficiently.

NOTE: An Early Registration Discount is available now through May 10 for  TAPPI's 2018 International Conference on Nanotechnology for Renewable Materials. The event will be held June 11-14 in Madison, WI. TAPPI Nano is the only international conference dedicated specifically to the production and use of cellulose nanomaterials. For full program details, or to register online, visit http://conference.tappinano.org.

 

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