When the Environmental Protection Agency announced its new emissions requirements in March, it stated that automotive manufacturers could reach those goals if electric vehicles (EVs) made up 56% of new vehicle sales in the U.S. by 2032. This is good news for composites manufacturers who are already supplying lightweight components for EVs. It also presents additional opportunities to further educate EV OEMs on how composite materials can help automakers meet their sustainability goals.

“We have a great story. I just don’t think we always do the best job telling it,” says Michael Siwajek, vice president, research and development at Teijin Automotive Technologies.

Composite materials offer many sustainability-related benefits for both EVs and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. “They have a lower overall carbon footprint than metals once you account for the low carbon impact in production and for the lower impact in use because they are thinner, lighter and stronger,” says Keith Bihary, chief business development officer at Molded Fiber Glass Companies (MFG).

Compared to traditional materials like steel, composites provide a lower density, higher strength-to-weight ratio and, depending on the material, high stiffness. “That allows for lightweighting from the lower density and also offers a potential of material reduction,” says Amanda Nummy, senior polymer materials engineer at Hyundai America Technical Center. Less raw material means less weight to transport and less energy required for processing, so the vehicle’s carbon footprint is reduced.

FRP composites also provide design freedom that allows for development of creative, sustainable options for automotive parts. They enable engineers to combine different resins and reinforcement structures to achieve the desired mechanical properties while minimizing sustainability impacts. For example, Nummy used a holistic approach to redesign an existing composite bed for a pickup truck. She considered the impact of material selection, the design itself and the processing of the part to achieve weight reduction, a big factor in vehicle sustainability.

“Another point we can make regarding sustainability benefits is a reduction in waste,” Nummy adds. “With polymer composites, we see advantages in corrosion resistance and in fracture toughness compared to metals and conventional polymers. So, you have the opportunity to have a longer service life and a reduction in waste associated with repairing or replacing components as they wear out.”

Lifecycle Advantage

The recyclability of vehicle components is always part of discussions about automotive sustainability. Thermoplastic composites are already recyclable, and the composites industry is making progress toward recycling thermosets as well. But the reality is that only a small amount of metal or composite materials from automotive production and end-of-life vehicles are currently reused in vehicle manufacturing. Although the aluminum industry claims that a majority of its scrap material is recycled within 20 days, Siwajek says that most of it actually goes into non-automotive products like beverage cans.

EV manufacturers and other OEM also appear to be moving away from focusing primarily on recyclability. “The automotive industry is more and more concerned with life cycle analysis (LCA), and composites do pretty well with that,” Bihary says.

“We have an excellent story versus metallics,” says Siwajek. “Cradle to gate, we are one-third to one-half of their LCA.” During production, for example, composites manufacturers can mold a part and ship it to their automotive customer, while a metallic part has to go from a blank to stamped dies to painting, which requires more time and energy.

Composite parts also have a lot more longevity than metallics, further adding to their LCA advantage. Siwajek recalls coming across an old Ford Explorer Sport Trac pickup truck that had hundreds of thousands of miles on it. Despite its age, the FRP pickup box looked brand new.

Cooperative Efforts Required

Both EV and ICE OEMs are committed to sustainability not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because they are facing increased regulatory pressure to reduce their carbon footprint. But defining their sustainability goals, and then identifying suppliers’ roles in achieving them, has been a multi-year and sometimes inconsistent process.

“The OEMs say they are committed to sustainability – and it shows up in the presentations that they make to supplier companies – but when the RFQs come out, it’s not on their list of requirements,” says Bihary. “The engineers who actually make the choices on materials are more focused on picking materials that they are comfortable with from a performance standpoint. While they may like the idea of using parts with sustainable components, they don’t want to take a risk with an unproven material.”