Biorenewable Bumpers: Scientists Create Stronger, Greener Auto Parts

Scientists at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) have teamed up with researchers at Clemson University to give auto parts a wooden upgrade.

The study’s lead expert, Clemson University Assistant Professor Srikanth Pilla, is converting wood to cellulosic nanomaterials, or tiny rod-like structures derived from trees, with help from FPL Materials Research Engineer Craig Clemons and a $481,000 grant from the USDA.

Srikanth Pilla, left, works with a graduate student in their lab. (Photo credit: Clemson University)

Srikanth Pilla, left, works with a graduate student in their lab. (Photo credit: Clemson University)

Researchers are using the cellulosic nanomaterials, measuring at 20,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, to develop composite material that can be shaped into bumpers and fenders with improved strength.

“They will absorb the energy and just stay intact,” Pilla said. “You won’t have to replace them because there will be no damage at all. Parts made with current materials might resist one impact. These will resist three or four impacts.”

The cellulosic nanomaterials will also ensure the parts are biorenewable, making them suitable for a compost facility once their drive is done.

As the leading wood research facility in the nation, FPL is accustomed to sharing knowledge and resources when wood is in the picture, and this time, the lab has provided Pilla with the essential component to the study.

“We’ll be producing the cellulosic nanomaterials, which are the most fundamental structural elements that you can get out of wood and pulp fibers,” Clemons said. “We’ll also be lending our more than 25 years of experience in creating composites and plastics from wood-derived materials to the project.”

The popularity and demand for biorenewable auto parts could rise in the U.S. if, like in the European Union, the nation develops standards on how much of a vehicle is required to be recyclable and reusable once it has driven its last mile.

Pilla and Clemons’ research is yet another step in creating sustainable forest products for a greener, cleaner future.

To learn more about the project, take a look at the full news release from Clemson.

Blog post by Francesca Yracheta