Green insulation for the automotive industry

Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) researchers, led by Dr Maryam Naebe, worked with Ford Motor Company research scientists to create the special textile, using virgin and waste wool fibres along with non-woven and fibre powder technology.

“With stricter fuel economy and environmental regulations closing in, leading car manufacturers like Ford are moving towards replacing polyester, polyethylene and polystyrene car interiors with lighter natural fibre options,” Dr Naebe said.

Ford Motor Company is a recognised leader in the development and implementation of sustainable materials. They were the first to incorporate soybean oil into polyurethane foam for seat cushions, backs and headrests, and their vehicles contain more than 10 plant-based materials developed within their labs.

“The majority of car insulators are currently made using petroleum-based microfibres, which aren’t sustainable, and contribute to ecological issues,” Dr Naebe said.

“The automotive industry is in need of a high performance, cost-effective, low carbon footprint, and biodegradable alternative for insulation.”

Dr Naebe said a major challenge of the project included developing a replacement with the same sound absorption, thermal resistance and air permeability benefits as a synthetic car insulator. The new material meets sound and thermal absorption requirements for certain automotive applications.

“Wool is a natural product, and its unique fibre structure gives it inherent thermal and acoustic insulation properties, which makes it a very promising candidate for sustainable insulation,” she said.

The IFM researchers went through a raft of testing methods and fibre mixing variations before they were able to land on a final product by using blended waste and virgin wool insulated fibres covered with a thin non-woven fabric via needle-punching.

“The prepared wool felt is an environmentally-friendly insulating material that not only greatly reduces the waste of end-of life vehicles but also makes the most of available natural resources,” Dr Naebe said.

“It has similar sound absorption, thermal resistance and air flow qualities to the current synthetic textile options, while the wool also offers the added benefits of being naturally odour-resistant, flame retardant and antibacterial.

“The outcome of this work will provide environmentally superior insulation material that’s perfectly suited for the emerging era of affordable, sustainable transportation.”

Ford Motor Company sustainable and advanced composites technical expert Dr Alper Kiziltas said the new wool insulation was a high quality and durable material that provided a quiet ride.

“Ford is constantly looking for more sustainable alternatives to the petroleum-based plastics in order to lower our environmental footprint, reduce ocean and landfill plastics and provide more natural materials for our customers,” Dr Kiziltas said.

Dr Naebe said she and her colleagues were thrilled with the results of the partnership, and were now looking to scale up and continue working with Ford on testing to refine the treatment process.

“The project has been an example of great collaborative effort,” she said.

“Our aim was always to do something that has an impact for industry and for people – we really want to see an improvement on people’s lives and the environment.

“We’re also very thankful to Ford for their support, providing funding through the Ford Motor Company USA Polling Challenge, as well as commercial materials and cabin testing data.

“Ford has a long relationship with Deakin, IFM, and the city of Geelong where our institute is based, so it’s great for our textile and fibre groups to have their support with this project.”

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