Sustainable products through the use of new polymers
Companies are feeling pressure from consumers and policymakers to manufacture their high-quality and semi-finished products sustainably. The first step towards a better life cycle assessment is often to replace existing plastics with new polymers, which are bio-based and/or biodegradable. Fraunhofer IFAM supports companies in finding a material solution that is both sustainable and economical through market analysis, material evaluation, and material development.
The green thicket: renewable, biobased and biodegradable
If companies want to design their products sustainably, the question of suitable raw materials arises. Bio-based plastics are not necessarily "bio", as they often consist only partially of renewable raw materials. The same applies to the degradability of polymer materials: Not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable, because biogenic origin and biodegradability do not necessarily go hand in hand.
In addition to the selection of raw materials, the entire value chain must be considered: from production and use to the recycling of products at the end of their life. The use of recyclable materials, recycling-friendly product design, and the use of biodegradable materials that are broken down into elementary components by microorganisms can provide solutions for a resource-efficient future.
New plastics with familiar, tried-and-tested polymer systems
However, improving the life cycle assessment of a product by replacing a material is not as simple as it might seem at first glance. In order to manufacture high-quality or semi-finished products economically, companies have spent years optimizing the selection and purchase of their raw materials, their production processes and their logistics. Ecological questions, but also questions of material science, production technology and market economy have to be answered first.
The quality and safety of an end product depend crucially on the properties of the new material. For this reason, experts at Fraunhofer IFAM often take the approach of developing new plastics within the framework of polymer systems already used by companies. This offers the advantages that known material properties can be retained and processing procedures do not have to be changed. The researchers also check the commercial availability of the required raw materials and develop economic options, which have a positive effect on the life cycle assessment.
Renewable raw materials
For the development of new plastics, renewable raw materials are particularly interesting from an ecological perspective, because their production, use and recycling are often associated with environmental benefits. However, the ecological balance is out of reach if the raw materials have to be shipped or flown in from other continents. In addition, the raw material must be commercially available at an economical price. To this end, the researchers at Fraunhofer IFAM investigate the raw material market and find out which raw materials are suitable for the new polymer to be developed and what the commercial availability is - also in the region of the manufacturer.
This is precisely one of the challenges in the international research project BestBioPLA. Together with research partners from Germany and Brazil, Fraunhofer IFAM is developing natural fiber reinforced plastics for automotive engineering. The aim is to produce the materials from regional resources and thus avoid costly transport routes. To this end, the researchers are investigating the processing possibilities of flax fibers native to Europe, but also of sisal fibers from Brazilian cultivation.
From market research to material development and testing
For plastics processing or manufacturing companies that want to replace existing plastics in their products or portfolio, the researchers develop biobased or biodegradable alternatives. In doing so, they take a holistic view of the life cycle assessment of a product or material and can also determine whether and how the product can be decomposed into basic components after use in the sense of a circular economy.
Fraunhofer IFAM provides support in:
- the narrowing down of the material selection based on material specifications and component requirements
- the research of commercially available raw materials
- material evaluations for a specific application - also using digital simulation methods
- the development of sustainable material alternatives from an economic point of view
- a holistic life cycle assessment
Fraunhofer IFAM has built up extensive knowledge in all aspects of the development and processing of polymer plastics. Due to their many years of experience, the researchers know the market very well and have an international network of raw material suppliers and contract manufacturers.
Polymer materials are a core competence of Fraunhofer IFAM. Dr. Katharina Koschek heads the department "Polymer Materials and Structures" at the institute. With her team, she evaluates, develops, and tests polymer plastics for lightweight construction in various applications. The industries for which the team carries out contract research range from the automotive and aerospace industries, shipbuilding and rail vehicle construction, to plant engineering and energy technology.