Editorial Feature

Renewable Materials for Automotive Manufacture - The Next Big Thing in Green Motoring?

As the automotive industry continues to develop and refine its range of products and specifications to meet the ever changing requirements of global markets, both fuel economy and green credentials are now key buying considerations for many consumers.

And it's not just consumers who are interested, the environmental impact of cars are also an important factor for governments and policy makers to consider when setting targets and objectives for the future of transport.

Is a more holistic, life-cycle approach to the environmental impacts of cars / transport required?

One phrase that we are beginning to hear more and more about is the 'life-cycle' cost or 'whole life carbon footprint' of cars - a term that generally describes a life cycle assessment to ascertain just how much environmental impact a car might have from its initial inception and development, through manufacture to its use and scrap/recycling once its rolled it's last mile. This is a particularly interesting concept and one that has recently gained a lot of momentum in the global press.

At a recent meeting of the European Parliament's Environment Committee (ENVI) the members voted to acknowledge the need to take into account “greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy supply and the life cycle of the vehicle" in future legislation from 2020 onwards.

This is a clear step change from the current EU legislation that solely focuses on the exhaust fumes emitted during vehicle operation.

Following this announcement WorldAutoSteel (The automotive function of the World Steel Association)  Director Cees ten Broek commented (22/05/13) Possible plans for the introduction of LCA in emissions regulations have taken a step forward as the European Parliament recognized the need to open the debate, and could set an important precedent for current legislation in discussion around the world”.

“As a global industry we are committed to developing solutions that provide design flexibility to car manufacturers while at the same time meeting their challenges for improving fuel economy and reducing green-house gas emissions. To be able to do this on a level playing field, together with other materials we need better regulation. This has clearly been acknowledged by the European Parliament and requires now the support of the Council - we are confident that this recognition will be confirmed in the upcoming negotiations in the EU. We are looking forward to embarking on a fruitful dialogue on LCA with both regulators and car manufacturers”.

As automotive designers and manufacturers make cars more economical to drive and less polluting in their operation, they inherently increase the overall percentage impact of the other life cycle stages / components of a car from 'birth to death'.

Therefore, the materials that cars are made out of, and their green credentials both in manufacture and disposal will increasingly become important.

This presents an opportunity for both traditional automotive material manufacturers and new, innovative products to help minimize the full life cycle impact of the cars' constituent parts.

Renewable, Recycled and Lightweight Materials for Green Automotive Design

Renewable, recycled or innovative lightweight materials are not a new feature of automotive design. However, with an increased emphasis on the overall life cycle impact of a car... there has been a recent surge in research and development in this area of material science.

Renewable / Biomaterials in Modern Automotive Design

Prior to the 1960's it was not uncommon to find 'natural' materials within the interior of a car however, over a period of roughly 20-30 years these were generally replaced by synthetic, mass produced hydrocarbon based materials.

Increasing awareness of the impact that our automotive products and transport preferences have on the global environment has lead to a resurgence in the use of renewable, recycled materials and fuels with a real momentum growing since the late 1990's.

We're not just talking about a surge in wooden dashboards in premium, executive saloons, or biofuel research and use in the public domain either. Although - it is incredible to think that even Prince Charles runs his 42 year old Aston Martin on Bio-ethanol produced from surplus white wine product!

More recently renewable biomaterials such as plant fibers or Bioplastics (for example: Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) / Poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB) / Polylactic acid (PLA)) are at the forefront of automotive materials R&D. You may be surprised at some of the applications of these materials.

Plant fiber composites are a great example of a range of renewable products that have been developed to appease our over-reliance on traditional plastics in automotive manufacture. From interior door panels to thermo-acoustic insulation within the body of the car, plant fiber composites offer infinite design and application possibilities and some exceptional material properties for designers and legislators to play with.

Interestingly, there is also a nice cross over between plant fiber composites and recycled products for automotive design. For example, cotton fibers from recycled textiles can be used to insulate against noise and heat while recycled products like Coconut fibers can even provide superior performance to synthetic materials, where their natural ability to regulate moisture can create a far more comfortable seat cover than synthetic / plastic seat materials.

Innovative design and applications of renewable / plant based materials can not only reduce the overall life-cycle cost of the materials of a car but they may also have the ability to dramatically reduce the weight and hence, fuel consumption of the car during its 'useful operational life'. Also, just like the coconut fiber material referenced above, plant fiber composites can also offer enhanced material characteristics to improve the safety, comfort and durability of automotive products. - Some of the world's most revered and trusted brands are now widely using plant fiber composites in their executive cars.

It's not just the big car manufacturers that are toying with the development and application of more environmentally friendly materials, materials manufacturers and academia are also working hard to 'close the supply chain loop'.

Applying the Principles of Sustainability and recyclability to Automotive design - The Biofore Concept Car...

The Biofore Concept Car being developed by UPM and students from Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences is a collaborative project of several organizations including funding from the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, focused on the key design philosophy's of sustainability and recyclability.

The Biofore team are working to utilize a range of innovative biomaterials as the base materials for a number of parts and components of the car that may have originally been made out of materials not traditionally characterized as 'Green' or environmentally friendly.

The innovative design features many parts that would have traditionally been made from plastic but have been replaced with new, more sustainable products such as  UPM Grada® a new thermoformable wood material and UPM ForMi a cellulose fiber biocomposite.

By incorporating these two materials, the design team are able to significantly reduce the overall life cycle cost of the interior products of the car, without compromising on aesthetic design, safety, performance or quality.

Using UPM's proven technology, the Biofore team can make the most of the unique environmental characteristics without any excessive development costs that a brand new composite material would incur.

The following video is a brief introduction to the UPM Grada thermoformable product used in the Biofore Concept car.

Of particular interest to automotive designers is UPM ForMI, a clever composite material made from renewable wood based cellulose fibers and polypropylene, designed for injection molding processes.

ForMI is created in composite granulates, manufactured from clean plastic polymers and sustainably sourced pulp fibers from sustainably managed forests.

UPM ForMI is recyclable and also suitable for energy production after disposal - making this product extremely useful for minimizing the full life-cycle environmental cost of the product.

Designed with injection molding in mind, UPM ForMI offers automotive designers a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional interior plastics and moldings.

Introducing UPM's New Composite - Replacing Non-renewable materials.


Biomaterials and a focus on sustainability are not new themes in automotive design. However, as legislation shifts and consumer buying behavior and choice criteria adopt to a more environmentally friendly stand point, car manufactures are increasingly looking to clever materials to help develop a more sustainable, 'green' product offering.

Contrary to popular belief, sustainable automotive products do not necessarily mean a lesser quality product or a compromise in aesthetic design or performance. Modern biomaterials and renewable products can offer the same, if not better material properties and are now being used not just as a 'greener' substitute but actually to enhance the look, touch, feel and performance of traditional automotive products.

It is clear that the increased taxation and focus on automotive emissions has resulted in far more economical and less polluting cars on our roads. However, is it now time for designers, manufacturers and consumers to look even more closely at the full life-cycle cost of their cars?

Renewably sourced and economically produced recycled materials, biomaterials and bio-composites appear to be the future and and the material science community is sure to be at the forefront of this development.

Sources and Further Reading


Please use one of the following formats to cite this article in your essay, paper or report:

  • APA

    Gilbert, Nick. (2019, May 14). Renewable Materials for Automotive Manufacture - The Next Big Thing in Green Motoring?. AZoM. Retrieved on March 26, 2023 from https://www.azom.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=9000.

  • MLA

    Gilbert, Nick. "Renewable Materials for Automotive Manufacture - The Next Big Thing in Green Motoring?". AZoM. 26 March 2023. <https://www.azom.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=9000>.

  • Chicago

    Gilbert, Nick. "Renewable Materials for Automotive Manufacture - The Next Big Thing in Green Motoring?". AZoM. https://www.azom.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=9000. (accessed March 26, 2023).

  • Harvard

    Gilbert, Nick. 2019. Renewable Materials for Automotive Manufacture - The Next Big Thing in Green Motoring?. AZoM, viewed 26 March 2023, https://www.azom.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=9000.


  1. Kathleen Geidel Hickey Kathleen Geidel Hickey United States says:

    For people who want to learn more about life cycle thinking for vehicle's and vehicle regulations, there's a wealth of information at WorldAutoSteel's website: http://www.worldautosteel.org/life-cycle-thinking/

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of AZoM.com.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you have a review, update or anything you would like to add to this article?

Leave your feedback
Your comment type