Ely firm’s new take on automotive plant
Dashboards, door panels and other internal car parts are usually made from injection-moulded plastics or glass fibre, but Ely-based Eco-Composites is developing a green alternative that it says offers advantages in cost, performance, and resource use.
“We have already made prototypes for some major car manufacturers using a mixture of plant fibres held together by a synthetic matrix and we are achieving good results,” said Ben Schadla-Hall, marketing manager for Eco-Mats, the parent company of Eco-Composites. The company was founded in 2004 to take advantage of the waste plant fibres that farmers were burning, ploughing under, or in some cases paying to dispose of. Initial products included absorbent mats for soaking up industrial spills, weed suppressing blankets for horticulture, and insulation materials for the construction industry. “We discovered that by changing the blend and exposing the mats to heat and pressure – such as in a press mould – they would become rigid and stiff,” says Ben. “We experimented with different shapes and found that there was almost no limit to what could be made. So far we’ve made chairs, a bed-head, and of course internal car parts. “The benefits to the automotive industry are the most significant. Injection-moulding plastic is a very energy intensive process, and of course plastics use a lot of oil and are not biodegradable. “Our plant fibre alternatives can be formed by press-moulding which uses much less energy. The raw materials are plant fibres, often saved from the waste stream, and providing a second income to farmers. “In terms of performance, the plant fibre panels are stronger and more rigid than plastic, and less brittle – they don’t shatter on impact and can absorb shock, giving them potential safety advantages too. They have improved acoustic and thermal properties, which can help to isolate the cabin from engine heat and noise. “The panels are typically lighter than their plastic equivalents, which reduces the weight of the finished vehicle, leading to savings in fuel utilisation and making the car more efficient.” As well as the factory team, Eco-Composites has a technical director who works alongside automotive companies, ensuring that their products are tailored to the needs of the industry. The company’s expertise with plant fibre means that they can formulate mixtures to achieve precisely defined parameters of flexibility, weight, strength, and other properties, as required. Ben is confident about the company’s abilities. “We are discovering new uses for traditional crops like hemp, linseed, and flax, and showing how these can be combined with technological expertise to create innovative products.”