Bio-Based Foam, a New Sustainable and Lightweight Automotive Material

Sustainability remains a top priority for automakers, despite the Environmental Protection Agency's recent proposal to scale back fuel-economy standards.

Aside from contributing to a cleaner world, the focus on sustainability is good for business. Today, a third of consumers globally choose to buy from brands they believe are doing social and environmental good, according to an international study conducted by Unilever.

Emissions reduction and lightweighting are the most common sustainability strategies. Working with IAC and BASF, Ford took its approach a step further, incorporating a bio-based foam comprised of castor oil beneath the instrument panel of its 2018 Ford Fusion.

In addition to leveraging renewable materials, BASF's Thin-Light solution provides weight savings of up to 30 percent compared to standard foam-backed instrument panels. And since lighter vehicles use less energy, the sustainable solution is doubly beneficial to the environment and was recognized as the SPE Environmental Category award-winner in 2017.

Bio-based foam is easily integrated into the production process

Thin-Light, part of a new generation of systems within BASF's Elastoflex E product group, addresses the challenges of developing of lighter, more intricate instrument panels.

Solutions like the Thin-Light system enable weight reduction without sacrificing functionality or aesthetics.

The production process for foam-backed instrument panels involves injecting foam between the skin and support of the panel using high heat and pressure to join all elements. The new system is easily integrated into existing panel production and addresses a common challenge of adhering different materials together. BASF's Elastoflex offers superior adhesion properties to dissimilar materials.

In addition to the 30 percent weight savings it offers, the chemistry of BASF's system improves the material viscosity and composition, resulting in smaller cross sectional thicknesses and reduced foam densities. The foam can be molded to less than five millimeter cross sections, contributing to lightweighting and increased space for vehicle component packaging.

Safety is a key concern when designing the instrument panel. The foam material is required to maintain shape and form during air bag deployment, minimizing any fragmentation from impact. Although the Thin-Light system reduces the overall instrument panel size and weight, the bio-foam maintains its integrity over the life span of a vehicle.

Sustainable materials for a greener automotive industry

"When all else is equal - the benefits, the performance, the cost - we believe the customer will select a renewable resource as their material of choice," said Jeffrey Hagar, market segment manager, automotive interiors for Performance Materials at BASF.

BASF decided to use castor oil, instead of soy oil, as its renewable material source for this foam system because it has no impact on food and farming supplies. Castor oil also does not run the same risk of turning rancid and maintains superior processing physical properties.

With environmentally conscience motives driving the choice to use renewable materials, automakers can proudly promote their contributions to a greener world.

Lightweight automotive materials bring future mobility advantages

As the industry drives toward a fully autonomous future, the use of lightweighting solutions becomes even more important.

BASF's Thin-Light solution provides weight savings of up to 30 percent compared to standard foam-backed instrument panels.

For instance, a lighter weight, thinner instrument panel contributes to greater design freedom in autonomous vehicles. Instrument panels in driverless vehicles require more personalized components and technology, and automakers are challenged with integrating more equipment without adding to overall vehicle mass.

Solutions like the Thin-Light system enable weight reduction without sacrificing functionality or aesthetics.

"BASF understands the challenges that automakers are facing, whether its weight requirements, safety, emissions regulations or evolving industry trends," said Hagar. "Sustainability is a core pillar of our business. We're focused on engineering solutions that meet or exceed performance requirements but with renewable materials that contribute to environmental security."

BASF's Elastoflex product group is globally available, and BASF can adapt the technology with local support.

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