This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II project will resolve the technical issues associated with scaling up the manufacturing of non-woven fabric composites made from a blend of coir fiber (from coconut husks) and recycled polypropylene. Final product variability due to the coir fiber itself, the milling of coir fiber from coconut husks, and the manufacturing process to make the felted composite, will be minimized. The variability of the coir fiber feedstock will be determined, along with the resulting variation of the composite's flexural stiffness. The most cost-effective production process to produce consistently clean, 2-3" long fibers in-country from husks will be defined. Finally, the manufacturing processes required to produce these coir fiber composites with the required consistency for automotive applications will be developed. This project will include continuous input from a major automotive manufacturer as well as an automotive parts maker. This research will result in an improved readiness of a polypropylene/coconut fiber based non-woven fabric composite that meets industry certifications for use in automobile trunk liners, and which is greener, less expensive, and better performing than current all-synthetic parts.
The broader/commercial impact of this project will take many forms. The total market for automotive non-woven fabric composites is 300 million kg/year. Each vehicle platform that adopts this technology will require 2 million kg/year just for the trunk liners. Replacing synthetic fiber with coconut fiber makes parts more environmentally friendly while utilizing a waste material. Petroleum consumption can be reduced 2-4 million barrels per year and CO2 emissions reduced by 450,000 tons per year by replacing polyester fibers with coir in automotive interior composites. Additionally, the improved performance and lower weight of these materials will lead to cost savings through increased fuel economy, saving up to 3 million gallons of gasoline per year in the U.S. Finally, this project will lead to great economic opportunities for poor coconut farmers and to a very positive environmental impact. Ninety-five percent of the 50 billion coconuts grown worldwide are owned by 10 million coconut farmers whose average income is less than $2/day. Approximately 85% of the coconut husks are currently disposed of as trash, creating pollution. The successful adoption of these materials would create a market for this material, in many cases doubling the annual income for these farmers.
The SBIR project allowed for the successful development and commercialization of innovative products in the automotive and consumer goods markets. Two coir fiber nonwoven products were launched as a direct result of the Phase II work. 2012 Ford Focus Electric Load Floor Insulator - this product was launched into production Fall 2011 and was the first commercial automotive part released. It features a coconut fiber based composite that serves as an acoustic spacer material. The load floor finished runner-up in the environmental category at the 2011 SPE Automotive Awards that had nearly 1,000 attendees. The part was featured in Plastics Today, Composites Technology Magazine, and the National Science Foundation Discovery. BrightGreen GroVert Moisture Mat - BrightGreen incorporated the coconut fiber composite as a "moisture mat" for their GroVert Living Wall Planter product sold at Home Depot and Williams- Sonoma. The product was first launched in 2011 and is in production today. Overall the load floor has also served as a springboard for multiple natural and recycled composite materials into other automotive applications. A third part, a thermoplastic structural guard on the Ford F-250 Super Duty containing natural fillers and recycled tires released in late 2012-2013 after being co-developed with an Essentium Materials partner. Although not directly related to the SBIR work, the commercialization activities from the SBIR Phase II grant contributed in positioning the team to release the first of several thermoplastic parts. Additional parts as a result of research completed during the SBIR award could be released into the market as early as 2015. Much of the work completed for the SBIR project was focused around raw material supply chain mapping, optimization, platform and product engineering, and manufacturing optimization. Traditionally, natural materials have had difficulty meeting the strict automotive performance standards and thus have had difficulty finding suitable applications. This project has set automotive OEMs on a trajectory to use more natural and recycled materials, since it was proved that with the right product engineering and manufacturing techniques, natural and recycled materials could find wide-spread uses especially in vehicle applications. The broader impact of this research has been seen as natural fibers and natural fiber composites continue to attract more customers due to their combination of good material properties and environmental friendliness.