Part of a study spearheaded by Srikanth Pilla, an assistant professor in the automotive engineering department at Clemson University, finds that trees removed during forest restoration projects could soon be used in car bumpers and fenders. Pilla is working in partnership with the research team from the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin.
They are converting some of those trees into liquid suspensions of small rod-like structures with diameters 20,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Pilla utilizes these small structures, called cellulosic nanomaterials, to create new composite materials that could be shaped into automotive parts with enhanced strength. These parts would also be biorenewable, which suggests they could go to a composting facility instead of a landfill when their time on the road is done.
Through this research, automakers could meet automotive recycling regulations that have been embraced in Europe and could be on the way to the USA. Pilla wants to utilize the composite materials he is developing to create fenders and bumpers that will be less likely to distort or break on impact.
In a statement, he explained that they would absorb the energy and just stay intact and there is no need to replace them as there would be no damage at all. He added that these would resist three or four impacts.
The U.S. Department of the Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture is funding the $481,000 research project for five years. Pilla’s research will be based out of the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville, South Carolina.
Craig Clemons, a materials research engineer at the Forest Products Laboratory and co-principal investigator on the project, revealed that the Forest Service wants to explore large-volume uses for cellulosic nanomaterials. He noted that they find appropriate outlets for all kinds of forest-derived-materials, and in this case, it’s cellulosic nanomaterials. “We’re trying to move up the value chain with the cellulosic nanomaterials, creating high-value products out of what could otherwise be low-value wood. We’ll be producing the cellulosic nanomaterials, which are the most fundamental structural elements that you can get out of wood and pulp fibers. We’ll also be lending our more than 25 years of experience in creating composites from plastics and wood-derived materials to the project.”
The research is guaranteed eco-friendly from the beginning until the end.
The cellulosic nanomaterials could come from trees that are eliminated during forest restoration projects. Eliminating this material from the forests helps prevent catastrophic wildfires. According to Pilla, researchers do not need to cut down healthy trees that could be used for other purposes.
Ted Wegner, assistant director at the Forest Products Laboratory, commented that using cellulosic nanomaterials would help meet the needs of people for sustainable, renewable and lightweight products while helping to boost the health and condition of America’s forests. He stressed that the US has abundant forest resources and the infrastructure to support a huge cellulosic nanomaterials industry. “Commercialization of cellulosic nanomaterials has the potential to create jobs, especially in rural America.”
One of the technical challenges Pilla and Clemons face in their work is merging the water-friendly cellulosic nanomaterials with the water-unfriendly polymers. They have to prove that the material can be mass produced as automotive manufacturers have to make thousands of parts.
Pilla said that they would use supercritical fluid as a plasticizer, enabling the nanoreinforcements to disperse through the polymer. He is confident that they can help develop a standard technique that will be scalable in the automotive sector.
Robert Jones, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at Clemson, commended Pilla on the research, which touches on Jones’ field of expertise. He holds a bachelor’s in forest management, a master’s in forestry from Clemson and a doctorate in forest ecology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse University.
He said that the research Pilla is doing with the USDA Forest Service is a creative way of utilizing what might otherwise be a low-value wood product to reinforce automobile parts. “It’s even better that these parts are biorenewable. The research is good for the Earth in more ways than one.”
Hamid Moaref has always been fascinated by cars and the automotive industry. His family has a longstanding association with the industry and has been in the tire business for the past 35 years. Raised in Dubai, Hamid attended Capilano University in Vancouver where he graduated with a BBA in marketing before attending an intensive course in magazine publishing in 2005. He has been the publisher and chief editor of Tires & Parts magazine for the past ten years.
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