Plastics Exec Calls for Standards to Drive New Material Opportunities

Recycling, crash and mixed-material standards will expand OEM design freedom, Jose Chirino told the 2020 SPE Automotive Composites conference.

The color orange is used in EVs to identify live, high-voltage components. These color-stable polyamide and polybutylene terephthalate compounds are slated for such applications. (Lanxess)

The plastics industry is rethinking its next generation of automotive materials to meet new demands in what it calls “the ACCESS framework” – Autonomy, Connectivity, Circularity, Electrification, Shared Mobility and Sustainability, said Lanxess Specialty Chemicals technical director Jose Chirino during his Sept. 9 keynote at the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) 2020 Automotive Composites Conference. The three-day event was held online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Chirino (below) outlined dozens of materials-application opportunities for plastics and composites related to components, systems and structures in electrified and autonomous/automated vehicles (AVs). He also stressed the ongoing need to offset the added weight of features such as heavy batteries and redundant safety-related systems. In the cabin, new plastics are enabling the design and seamless integration of high-value content such as sensors, transparent displays, ambient lighting aesthetics, voice-enabled IoT devices and touch-sensitive switches.

“Polymer composites will enable new interior configurations for AVs, improved access for elderly and disabled passengers, and improved wear and tear for shared and fleet vehicles,” Chirino said. “And anti-odor, self- cleaning and anti-microbial materials will enable hygienic and durable interiors needed for shared, fractional ownership and ride-share vehicles.” He advocated a demonstration project focusing on high usage-rate vehicle cabins for advanced-interior automotive plastics and polymer composites. “Automakers will need longer-lasting materials that are more durable, hygienic, recyclable and replaceable,” Chirino said.

In his SPE speech, Chirino claimed that plastics and composites “will promote a more sustainable supply chain” and what he called a “circular economy” via advances in recycling technology, multi-material joining methods and comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tools. He called for more industry partnerships among resin producers, OEMs, academic researchers and government agencies “to conduct pre-competitive research, development and commercialization of new plastics, to supplement private proprietary R&D.”

Chirino referenced the American Chemistry Council’s latest roadmap  identifying more than 180 pre-competitive collaborative activities, as well as suggested timeframes through 2030 for implementing them. Standards development should play a key role in accelerating advancement of plastics for automotive use, Chirino said. “The roadmap calls for establishing material-agnostic industry standards for permitting use of mixed materials for lightweight assemblies,” he said. “OEMs need standards in place that do not put unnecessary constraints on vehicle designers.”

Current aspects of plastics recycling are “inconsistent,” Chirino asserted. To move recycling forward, he suggests establishing an industry group or committee to identify and set LCA standards for automotive materials, an initiative “that will require across-the-board industry coordination and buy-in.” Industry-wide coordination is needed to improve recovery rates for end-of-life materials, he said. However, during the Q&A session that followed his presentation, Chirino would not say whether he supports manufacturer take-back legislation as part of this effort.

More effective non-destructive testing and evaluation techniques for end-of-life sorting are needed for faster identification of various grades of plastics and polymer composites. This will be critical for collection, reuse and remanufacturing, Chirino said, “by helping end-of-life vehicle dismantlers divert automotive plastics from landfills to various recycling streams for new-vehicle parts.”

Vehicle electrification provides various opportunities for advanced plastics and composites, he added. The plastics industry has prioritized increased collaboration between NHTSA and key advocacy groups to develop collision test methods for vehicle battery systems. “Standardizing certain crashworthiness tests across the industry can accelerate the adoption of safe, high-performance materials for protecting EV batteries,” Chirino said.

Also given top priority is development of plastics and polymers with greater performance in electromagnetic shielding and overall durability, “to safeguard electrical and electronic system components.” Greater industry collaboration both upstream and downstream “will be critical” for expanding the role of plastics and composites in the mobility space, Chirino asserted.