Automakers have expended vast resources in recent years to develop cars that pollute less and can be operated using renewable energy sources. While it is admirable to reduce the environmental impact of a vehicle during its operational life, what becomes of it once those years of usefulness have come to an end? Up to 80% of the material in a car is recyclable, and every year over 25,000,000 tons of these materials are reclaimed. However, this means that nearly 6.25 million tons of non-recyclable materials are left to be managed in landfills.
Attacking the Problem Differently
Taking a page from the Stephen R. Covey playbook, students at the Eindhoven University of Technology “began with the end in mind.” Instead of focusing on the environmental impact a car has today, they concentrated on reducing its impact after its useful life was over. The result was a little electric sedan that they named “Lina.”
Lina weighs in at 684 pounds, seats four and has a top cruising speed of 50 mph. It’s not what the car can do that makes it unique, it’s what the car is made of. The sedan’s low weight is achieved by materials choice. Not made of steel, fiberglass or carbon fiber, the structure of the car is fashioned entirely from biodegradable materials, chiefly sugar beets and flax.
Members of the team that built the car developed a resin made from these two plant fibers to coat an internal honeycomb structure in the panels. They say the resulting product is comparable in strength to fiberglass, a material commonly used in today’s automobiles. Using lighter materials results in less energy needed for operation by the end user, but there is little net energy savings when the entire process is considered. Producing fiberglass and other like light weight materials has 5 to 6 times the energy requirements during the production phase than steel does. This is not the case with the body panels produced for the Lina.
Another large energy savings will be realized at the end of the sedan’s time as a mode of transportation. After all, unlike melting down and repurposing steel, no additional energy must be introduced for biodegradation to occur.
Don’t Expect One Tomorrow
The TU/Ecomotive team of Eindhoven University is currently touring with Lina to raise awareness about possibilities for future, more eco-friendly automotive manufacturing practice. The prototype, though working, is still in the early stages of development and testing. Like fiberglass, sugar beet and flax resin breaks when struck instead of warping or crushing, so crash testing is still on the docket. In its current iteration, the car also has no radio, air-conditioning and only has limited ability to drive in reverse. Good thing that it’s light.
The fact that the car at present only boasts a 63-mile range won’t have consumers pounding down the door anytime soon either, but that’s not the point of the effort. This experiment is about changing the face of automotive history by changing the face of what happens to a car after it has become history.