A new study underway at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville County hopes to convert recycled trees into car bumpers and fenders.
Srikanth Pilla, an assistant professor for Clemson, announced Wednesday he has received $481,000 from the United States Department of Agriculture to work with the Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis.
The five-year study aims to convert trees removed during forest restoration projects into liquid suspensions of tiny rod-like structures called cellulosic nanomaterials.
Pilla said the structures, which have a width of about 20,000 times smaller than a human hair, will be used to develop new composites that can be shaped into automotive parts with greater strength and durability than traditional polymers.
“This is a new way to advance sustainability in the automotive sector,” Pilla said. “I’m happy to see the federal government recognize the value of taking this to the next level.”
Pilla said the composites made with the cellulosic nanomaterials are biorenewable, meaning they can be composted rather than being placed in a landfill.
He said that will help automakers comply with recycling regulations that are being implemented in Europe and could one day be adopted in the U.S.
Pilla said bumpers and fenders made from the composites are about three to four times stronger than parts made with current materials and are less likely to distort or break on impact.
He said parts made from the composites weigh about the same as their polymer counterparts. Their cost, he said, will likely be determined by demand.
“We find appropriate outlets for all kinds of forest-derived materials,” said Craig Clemons, a materials research engineer at the Forest Products Laboratory and co-principal investigator on the project. “We’re trying to move up the value chain with cellulosic nanomaterials, creating high-value products out of what could otherwise be low-value wood.”
Pilla said the cellulosic nanomaterials are harvested from the pulp and wood of felled trees. While some species of trees can yield more cellulosic nanomaterials than others, the product is the same.
The processes being used by Pilla and his team at ICAR, which includes two researchers and two students, are environmentally friendly.
Ted Wegner, assistant director of the Forest Products Laboratory, said in a statement there are abundant forest resources to support the commercialization of cellulosic nanomaterials, which in turn could create jobs.
Pilla, originally from India, earned a Bachelor of Technology degree in mechanical engineering from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University.