Most plastics are made using oil and a significant amount of pollution is therefore generated, including greenhouse gases, when plastic is manufactured. This is why the service industry began to move away from plastics and pressure is now mounting on car manufacturing businesses as well. The metals used in automobiles can be recycled but the plastics cannot, which is why there is an increasing R&D effort to make polymer materials such as plastics, polyethylene and polyurethane using plant materials which would significantly reduce the environmental impact. Development of green bio materials is necessary to ensure the sustainability of the automobile industry. Using bio materials will allow us to continue to enjoy the convenience automobiles provide while ensuring a better future for all. This is why Hyundai Motor Group continues to invest in bio materials R&D despite a number of setbacks. We will continue to strive to develop an environmentally friendly alternative to petrochemical-based plastics with the same level of strength, whilst still delivering great value to our customers.
Green biomaterials to drive new growth
Q Why green biomaterials are necessary for automobiles?
Cars should be made so they do not to pollute the natural environment. Therefore, the various parts of the automobile need to be made from environmentally friendly materials. Last year, a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nostril raised awareness about environmental issues.
We can reduce such problems if we use more environmentally friendly materials in our cars. We have two goals; one is to make materials that are biodegradable and the other is to manufacture using materials that do not cause pollution. These are the two overarching directions in green biomaterials R&D.
Q The public’s environmental awareness has been increasing in recent years but I think governments, corporations and consumers each have different perspectives on the issue.
What environmental friendliness means differs depending on your perspective. We have conducted many surveys and the results revealed that consumers think of clean air, clear skies and things that do not harm them as environmentally friendly. However, governments, society and corporations regard a lack of pollution as environmentally friendly. Different perspectives can lead to different interpretations of the same words. It is therefore a challenge in itself, just agreeing on what environmental friendliness means.
Q So cellulose and nanofibers are second generation biomass. What is the focus of your team on the third generation biomass?
We are working on biomass made using the photosynthesis of microalgae. Because microalgae needs CO2 to grow, algae cultivation can lead to a reduction in CO2. It is like creating artificial algae bloom and using the algae to make raw material for carbon fibers. Materials from algae can be fermented with other materials such as carbohydrates to create energy resources. A double benefit in CO2 reduction can be achieved because first algae absorbs CO2 and second the materials made using microalgae can replace plastics.
Q What are the types of sustainable resources available as the raw material for green biomaterials?
Corn is one of the most common plant materials which can be converted into a green energy resource. Furthermore, its glucose can be extracted and turned into bioplastic as well. Food resources such as corn are referred to as first generation biomass. However, many people have criticized the use of corn because it can be used as food for people and starvation is still a serious issue in some parts of the world.
This is why people began to look into second generation biomass, such as residues like rice straws and corn husks. Both are rich in carbohydrate and glucose, which can be used as biochemical feedstock, and used in the fermentation process. Third generation biomass research has recently begun with a focus on turning CO2 into materials or energy. Currently, second generation biomass research is the focus. However, we are at the cusp of a transition into third generation R&D.
Q What is the main approach explored by the Environmental technology R&D team for development of green biomaterials?
Tissues and papers are made using pulp extracted from wood. Pulp is made of smaller units called cellulose. Cellulose is made of fibers which are used in making mask packs. It is difficult to make such thin fibers, however, recently a new technology has been developed which is capable of extracting cellulose on a nanoscale. Cellulose is five to nine times tougher than steel in terms of tensile strength and 10 times lighter.
Pulp can be turned into a gel-like state, which is referred to as cellulose nano fiber, through a grinding process. It can then be mixed with plastic to make a composite material. In the short-term, the new composite can be used to achieve lightweight parts in cars. Similar to mixing glass fiber with plastic for composite materials, cellulose nanofibers can be mixed with plastics to reduce the amount of plastic used while achieving a higher strength than mixing it with glass fiber.
Q So, is it correct to say that your mission is to make cars green so that the earth can be sustainable?
Sustainability can only be achieved with sustainable resources. Oil is not sustainable as it is nonrenewable. This is not just a problem for automobiles. There are a huge number of products that we use made from petrochemicals. It is time for us to really think about what happens when we run out of oil.
I think the vast majority of people want to keep using plastics and automobiles. We need something we can continue to use. I contemplated this for a long time and came to the conclusion that we need to create a sustainable resource in order to become sustainable. Plants such as trees, and algae in the sea grow and die as the seasons pass. We thought sustainability could be achieved if we make things using them.
Q Are green biomaterials used in any Hyundai or Kia model currently?
Yes, NEXO FCEV has bio plastic, bio fabric and plant- based paints all of which were certified by the Underwriters Laboratories, a US-based safety certification institute. Kia SOUL EV, which was launched in 2014, was the first model that used green biomaterials. The driver module had bio polyethylene materials made from processing sugar from sugarcane. However, I don’t think any of the SOUL EV owners realized that biomaterials were used because it looked and felt identical to conventional petrochemical materials.
Q What types of green bio plastics are the automotive sector currently developing?
Within the automotive industry, Toyota is a clear leader in biomass materials R&D. Operating from a farm in Indonesia and its subsidiary, Toyota Boshoku has been working on energy resource development with a focus on developing relevant core technologies.
In Europe, especially Germany, there is much ongoing research on using natural fibers to replace the carbon fibers used in the manufacture of the bonnet or hood. Ford is taking a unique approach and currently researching bamboo as a potential material. There is also ongoing research on using materials made using CO2 mixed with plastics for car seats.
Q What are some concerns on whether biomaterials are truly green?
We are committed to making bio plastic 100% environmentally friendly. When plastics are made using petrochemicals, CO2 emissions cannot be avoided. But this is not the case when plant materials are used. Plants absorb CO2 as they grow. We can get closer to achieving 100% greenness as biomaterials technology improves.
Microorganism present yet another possibility. Some microorganisms take in nutrients and discharge plastic like materials. There could be microorganisms out there which discharge the types of materials that we need. It is possible that in the future, we might be able to get the materials we want by cultivating microorganisms.
Q I grew up hearing that oil would soon run out yet many are now saying that it is impossible to know how much oil is actually left. The US has begun exporting shale gas and oil overseas. Do these changes create challenges to the development of green alternatives?
It now seems likely that oil will not run out for our generation. This creates extra challenges to the development of high quality green alternative materials which are cost competitive with petrochemicals. Currently, efforts are being made to reduce oil consumption in order to reduce CO2 emissions. The reduction in oil consumption is expected to reduce the volume of various materials that are derived from oil. We believe green alternatives will fill the gap when this happens. We are therefore aiming to develop green materials which deliver great value to customers even if they are a bit more expensive.
Of course, we cannot accurately predict how our definition of green biomaterials will change in the future. For example, nobody expected ”vegan leather” to gain so much popularity, without the huge rise in the number of vegans such products would not even exist. Phenomenon like this encourages us to continue our work.
Q It seems like changing consumer perceptions could be the biggest challenge in green biomaterials R&D and their popularization.
Parents are willing to buy organic food, paying premium prices, if their children are sensitive to pesticides. Green biomaterials should create additional value and consumers should be able to recognize it. For example, the owners of cars fitted with vegan leather can feel proud saying “The leather in this car uses vegan leather not cow skin”. Unfortunately, none of the new green materials developed so far have been able to generate such a positive perception.
We think we should try to develop materials with a unique story behind them. For example, Hyundai Motor Group owns a large farm which was created from reclaimed wetlands, developed by Hyundai Motor Group. Rice is cultivated at the farm which is then used to generate straws, from which we can then make biomaterials using it. This idea can create a unique story about the positive flow of materials through Hyundai Motor Group’s value chain and help generate interest in green biomaterials