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One normally wouldn’t associate a high-performance racing car with flax fibers but Porsche recently embraced the sustainably farmed material and successfully tested it in one of the world’s toughest races – the Nürburgring 24-hour race. Natural fiber materials are eco-friendly, lightweight, strong, and low cost, have already begun to replace glass and mineral fillers in numerous industries including construction, furniture making, and packaging. But their appearance in automotive is relatively new.
Of course, car components aren’t exactly being manufactured out of linen. Rather, they’re being made from natural fiber composites that combine fiber with a number of different polymers. When it comes to weight and stiffness, these composite materials are similar to carbon fiber composites, meeting the same high quality and safety standards for non-structural components.
Environmental legislation at work
The use of natural fibers in the automotive industry is primarily the result of legislation. Automakers everywhere are being pushed to take increasing responsibility for the impact of their cars throughout their lifecycle; this is leading to the use of materials that are still efficient but have a lower environmental impact.
While natural fiber composites share similarities with carbon fiber composites, they are much more environmentally friendly, using renewable raw material that is also biodegradable and therefore easier to recycle. (The material comes from fiber waste as well as non-food crop flax fibers.) According to CleanTechnica, composites from fiber can also be produced using less energy than glass and carbon fiber. Another advantage is the reduced weight, which means less fuel/energy throughout a car’s lifecycle.
Keep in mind natural fiber composites aren’t suited to high stress and structural loads. For example they couldn’t be used for a chassis. To make natural composites stiff enough for a vehicle’s frame (which could be done), the resulting material would become very heavy. But because this regenerative material has so many other advantages, it is catching on in racing where innovation is paramount.
Real-world testing at speed
The development of natural fiber reinforced plastics began in 2016 with a collaboration between Porsche, Swiss company Bcomp, and several government agencies. Porsche put this composite to a real-world test in 2019, manufacturing race car components out of it – two doors and a rear wing.
Since then, Bcomp composites have been used to replace the molded components of sports cars in 16 racing series around the world, including a racing variant of the Tesla that was unveiled on the Barcelona racetrack in 2018.
For the Nürburgring race this past September, Porsche used the same material to manufacture numerous other non-structural components for its race car including front and rear aprons, front spoiler, front and rear lids, and aerodynamic fins.
An early attempt: Ford’s soybean car
Is Porsche the first to try something this radical? Well, actually no. Ford beat them to the punch some eighty years ago with the Ford soybean car. The New York Times in 1941 states the car body and fenders were made from a strong material derived from soybeans, wheat, and corn.
The body weighed less than 2,000 lbs and was therefore more fuel efficient than a normal metal body – an important consideration at a time when gasoline was in short supply. Reportedly for undisclosed reasons, Ford ordered it destroyed. The soybean car nevertheless lives on in memory along with other ahead-of-their-time innovations like GM’s EV1 electric car.
Now in sexy concept cars
While the use of natural fiber components in racing cars is exciting, it is the application of it in cars for the general public that is going to make a difference. The Swedish electric performance car brand Polestar, owned in part by Volvo, has jumped on the bandwagon. In the Polestar Precept, launched March 2020, the interior panels have been replaced with flax composites. Other car brands are expected to follow suit. In fact, Bcomp claims it is currently in talks with various manufacturers.
Flax-based plastics might join turbochargers, all-wheel drive, disc brakes, and semi-automatic shifters as premium racing innovations that migrated down to passenger vehicles. For your everyday car it makes a ton of sense starting with reducing weight, which by the way also improves electric range and meets fleet CAFE goals. It also puts less drain on non-renewable resources while simultaneously making end-of-life disposal easier. It’s got a cool brand-new look too.
I predict that we’ll see flax-based exteriors show up in standard passenger cars first in an eco-premium EV sportster, like maybe a special model Tesla or Lucid Air. Then everybody will want one. I already do.