Nowadays, it is clearly observed from the current panorama of environmental preservation that there is a continuous definition and approval of increasingly restrictive regulations and a rise in the market demand for products with a lower ecological footprint.
Specifically, the automobile sector has been identified as one of the most involved in the adoption of protectionist measures towards the environment preservation, translating some of their major concerns in the increase of green materials demand.
Among biodegradable materials, the ones that are now attracting more commercial interest are some biodegradable polyesters, which can be processed using conventional processing equipment and are being used in the food packaging and biomedical field. The most widely researched thermoplastic sustainable biopolymers are starch-based resins, PLA and PHB.
Most of their development is focused on film processing, so these materials could only be validated for less demanding applications like packaging and textile industry. Consequently, more research is needed in fields like injection moulding and thermoforming, the most widely used in the automobile industry, in order to improve characteristics like thermal and hydrolysis resistance, stress at break and volatile emission.
In this sense, ECOplast aims to provide a feasible response to those environmental concerns by fulfilling demands from the principal OEMs, and protectionist policies from legislative authorities, currently detected by the automobile sector. Specifically, this project aims to develop novel thermoplastic biomass-based composites through the synthesis of novel protein-based polymers (PBPs) with smart thermoresponsive properties and obtained from residual carbon resources.
Conception and modulation of new molecular architectures in polylactic acid (PLA) and improvement of polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) properties, adapting their structure and nature to automotive specifications will be needed. These two last base biopolymers are commercially available and have technical properties closer to the conventional petrochemical polymers, already validated for their use in a vehicle. Moreover, they are large-scale manufactured, so the exploitation and economic impact of project results are assured.
The main objective of the project is the development of new biomass-based composites validated for the automotive industry by adapting base biopolymers and generating new ones, using innovative treatments for fibre reinforcements. Additivation of the base polymer with novel fillers and nanofillers will also be considered.
The main research line will be focused on the adaptation of available biopolymers (PLA, PHB) and the creation of a new protein-based biopolymer (SELP) for its use as the base matrix, to be able to meet automotive standard requirements. In order to accomplish this target, it is indispensable to improve the thermal characteristics of these polymers, the hydrolysis resistance, the dimensional stability and the volatile emission.
Therefore, this project will develop several new reinforcements and novel additives like nanofillers, mineral fillers and treated natural fibres (nanocellulose), to be compounded with these base polymers in order to create new biocomposites. Accordingly, the following will be used:
a. Nanofillers for increasing the thermal resistance.
b. Natural fibres and nanocellulose for enhancing the dimensional stability and the mechanical resistance.
c. Mineral fillers for reducing the moisture absorbency.
Another important goal in this project is the adaptation of conventional processing techniques (polymers compounding, injection moulding and thermoforming), widely used in the automotive industry, and the design of new ones tailored to these biocomposites. The challenge here will be to overcome the problem of degradation due to extreme thermal conditions and moisture absorbency.