Tony O'Kane | Jun 14, 2008

Those of you who never really paid attention in chemistry class might not know that cars consume oil in ways other than just burning it for fuel. However, the eggheads amongst you will no doubt be aware that the modern car contains a large amount of petroleum-derived plastics; not just in parts like plastic bumpers or trim pieces, but also in tyres, wiring, carpets, upholstery and insulation. Not only does the looming energy crisis raise the daunting question of what will power the cars of the future, but it also casts a great deal of uncertainty over what we'll use to build those cars. Thankfully, Mazda are busy working on a solution that's greener in more ways than one.

Mazda's new bioplastics research will focus developing a viable non-food-based polypropylene plastic that can be applied to future vehicle construction. Whereas previous bioplastics have typically been derived from vegetables such as corn (Mazda themselves experimented with this method not long ago), Mazda aim to develop their new material from cellulosic waste from logging and forestry - twigs, leaves and branches, in other words.

The plan is simple: break down the cellulosic waste into ethanol, then combine it with propylene gas to produce polypropylene, which can then be injection-moulded into any shape. Given that the raw material used was once a carbon-breathing plant the whole exercise should be carbon neutral, but the only problem is the use of propylene gas in the process: it's normally obtained from coal gas or by cracking petroleum, both of which are decidedly un-green sources. It will be interesting to see how Mazda circumvent this obstacle, however they must be applauded for taking the initiative to tackle this oft-neglected aspect of 'The Oil Problem'. Good luck.

Press Release

HIROSHIMA, Japan—Mazda Motor Corporation today signed a collaborative research agreement with Hiroshima University to launch the “Mazda Bioplastic Project.” The project aim is to develop a bioplastic from non-food-based cellulosic biomass and have it ready for use in vehicles by 2013.

The bioplastic being developed will not consume food resources because it will be made from cellulosic biomass produced from inedible vegetation such as plant waste and wood shavings. Furthermore, because cellulosic biomass is plant-derived and therefore carbon neutral*, the bioplastic will reduce reliance on limited fossil fuel resources and alleviate carbon dioxide emissions.

The project will focus on designing a production process for an extremely versatile polypropylene, appropriate for extensive use in vehicles, by first converting cellulosic biomass to ethanol, and then investigating various mixtures of ethylene and propylene. The polypropylene must have sufficient heat resistance, strength and durability to be used in vehicle bumpers and instrument panels. The project will also seek to optimize the manufacturing process for the bioplastic so that it is eco-friendly and cost-effective.

Seita Kanai, Mazda’s director and senior executive officer in charge of R&D, said, “Development of a non-food-based bioplastic made from sustainable plant resources has great potential in the fight against global warming, and can help allay global food supply concerns. Mazda is pleased to join forces with our regional partners as we work toward systematically combining various biomass technologies. Through this cooperation, we intend to strengthen Hiroshima’s position as a center for biomass research, and develop technology that can be used throughout the world.”

Mazda’s previous research on biomass technology resulted in the world’s first high heat-resistant, high-strength bioplastic and the world’s first 100 percent plant-derived fabric for use in car seats. These two biomaterials are used in the interior of the Mazda Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid. Powered by Mazda’s hydrogen rotary engine mated to a hybrid system, the Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid is scheduled to start commercial leasing in Japan in fiscal year 2008.

Mazda began joint activities with the research department at Hiroshima University’s Graduate School of Engineering in 2005. This partnership’s comprehensive agreement on joint automotive technology research includes biomass technology. Going forward, Mazda plans to expand the collaborative research on biomass technologies and strengthen its relationship with Hiroshima University for multidisciplinary joint research. Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) will also participate in the bioplastic project as part of its ongoing agreement to collaborate on biomass research with Hiroshima University.

In March 2007, Mazda announced its long-term vision for technology development, “Sustainable Zoom-Zoom.” This vision sets out Mazda’s commitment to advance safety and environmental technologies, which include biomass-related research, with the aim of realizing a sustainable society.

* Carbon neutral

Carbon neutral describes a process that has a negligible impact on total atmospheric CO2 levels. For example, carbon neutrality means that any CO2 released when a plant decomposes or is burnt is offset by an equal amount of CO2 absorbed by the plant through photosynthesis when it is growing.

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