Dutch students build world’s first plant based car 0

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The search for cleaner, lighter and more sustainable materials from which to build our cars is constant. The past 20 years has seen aluminium replace steel in vehicle chassis and carbon fibre is now used on mainstream road cars, not just on the racetrack.

A team from the Eindhoven University of Technology has taken sustainable car production to a new level by building a car made from plant fibres.

One of the students, Quinten Oostvogel, an automotive engineering student and team manager of the TU/ecomotive group, said: “We wanted to look at bio-based options to build a chassis and considered the plant flax. Flax fibres are very tough, and the flower is very popular in regions like Canada and Russia. This makes it ideal for making strong composites.”

The team of 22 then started to design, engineer and build the car with the intention of competing in the 2017 Shell Eco-marathon held in London last May.

Mechanical engineering student and chief mechanical systems and chassis engineer Bas Huisman explained the process: “We built the flax fibres ourselves,” he said. “We first dried thousands of plants in a field in the summer.”

The plants were then heated in an oven to seperate the fibres; they were then woven into 100-metre rolls and dried once more, “We then laid the fibre rolls on top of one another and put them into an oven and pressed them hard to create strong sheets of flax fibre,” Huisman added.

The sheets of flax fibre alone are not strong enough to withstand the rigours a vehicle chassis must undergo once on the road. The add extra strength, the TU/ecomotive team placed a honeycomb PLA (polylactic acid) structure in between the two groups of compressed sheets.

The result is a number of large plates of flax-fibre ‘blocks’ that can be cut to fit. Huisman says that up to 80% of the car’s chassis is made from the flax fibre; other integral parts of the car, such as the suspension, can be bolted on. The vehicle’s structure weighs a mere 70kg, although Huisman claims this could be trimmed down to 40kg, much lighter than an aluminium car.

The rest of the car comprises an electric drivetrain featuring two motors plus a modular lithium-ion battery was completed in just seven weeks.

The students have called the car Lina, after the Greek goddess of weaving.

The car’s final 310kg gross weight is above the maximum 225kg allowed to compete in the Shell Eco-marathon, but the car’s real purpose was not to compete, rather to make a point about what was possible. “The reason we created this car was to show manufacturers that they should be looking at different materials,” Oostvogel said.

He explained: “Car makers opt for lightweight materials such as aluminium and carbon fibre to create lighter, more efficient cars. The processing of these materials, however, requires five to six times more energy than steel.

“Consequently, energy that is saved is now spent during the production phase. In addition, recyclability of these lightweight materials is lacking. These are not sustainable materials,” the engineering student added.

As well as being more environmentally friendly, flax fibre is also lighter by some margin than any of the materials being used currently. It can also be recycled which is an added bonus. How about safety? Oostvogel admitted the car had not yet been crash tested, but the flax-fibres honeycomb structure give the car the same strength as a fibreglass chassis and not too far from an aluminium unit.

“We’ve done some simulation crashes and the results are encouraging. Definitely you could see flax fibres in future chassis of production cars,” Oostvogel told us.

Other teams across the globe are also experimenting with the possibilities of bio-based chassis. At Kyoto University (working with the Denso Corporation – the biggest supplier to Toyota) researchers are studying how wood particles can be incorporated into chassis manufacturing for future vehicles.

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