Down the road from the Detroit headquarters of America’s largest automotive manufacturers sit the offices of what many might consider an unlikely but essential ally in the challenge to save energy—a petrochemical manufacturer that uses liquids derived from oil and natural gas to create high-tech plastics as strong as metal but light enough to save fuel.
The Motor City office of SABIC opened its doors in the 1970s, but the art and science of reducing the weight of cars, and leveraging plastics in the process, has been an accelerating phenomenon.
Today, the company’s roughly 50 Detroit-based employees create automotive parts out of advanced plastic materials that shave pounds off Jeep Renegades, while retaining the Jeep’s structural integrity. In addition to those parts, other petrochemical companies have developed fiber-reinforced polymers for the roofs and hoods of Cadillacs and Corvettes.
“Everyone is trying to drop weight, but they continue adding content to vehicles because consumers are looking for more features. As a result, cars are heavier now than they were 20 to 30 years ago,” said Scott Fallon, SABIC’s automotive business leader. “With lightweight plastics, we can at least help automakers offset some of the weight—and that can make a difference.”
From lighter, high-tech car parts to the more efficient-burning fuel blends that power today’s vehicles, petrochemical and fuel manufacturers are a key factor behind greatly improved efficiency in the transportation sector.
“Maybe it’s a subtle irony that a lot of this growth is in areas related to energy conservation,” said Brian Pellon, vice president of research and development at the Huntsman Advanced Technology Center in The Woodlands, Texas. “That is where the focus is today. We have products that contribute to that.”
The ability to take advantage of these advances has been aided by the shale oil and gas boom that has provided cheaper, more abundant energy and raw materials for petrochemical plants and oil refineries. Together, these developments have ushered in a period of unexpected growth for the industry. Existing petrochemical facilities have been restarted or expanded, and new ones are being built to meet the ever-growing demand for plastics, both here and abroad. For the first time in decades, the potential exists to expand domestic oil-refining capacity to help fulfill growing demand for fuels in Mexico, South America and Europe, which further enhances energy security in the Western Hemisphere.
In many ways, these new applications are simply extensions of the creativity and innovation that have historically characterized the fuel and petrochemical manufacturing industries. Oil refiners have always been in the business of fuel conservation. Additives blended into gasoline have reduced emissions, while others have increased performance. As modern engines have evolved, the gasoline and diesel blends that fuel them have had to change as well. Additionally, rising environmental concerns have led to increasingly demanding specifications for fuel components. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the refining industry has substantially reduced emissions since 1990, even while increasing fuel production.
“We have developed cleaner-burning fuels for more than 60 years that have generated trillions of dollars in health and other benefits,” said Rebecca Liebert, president and chief executive of Honeywell UOP. “Increasingly strict regulations around the world continue to lower the allowable limits for emissions produced by diesel fuel and gasoline, and that requires new refining technologies to convert as much of that crude oil into energy as possible, while further reducing emissions.”
With the move to unleaded gasoline came reductions in smog-producing nitrogen and sulfur, benzene and aromatics, as well as improved refining processes that use less energy while making more fuel and producing less waste. This evolutionary process has yielded better-performing, more environmentally-friendly fuels from processes that make the best use of every barrel of oil.
“As we look to the future of liquid transportation fuels, AFPM members will be on the front lines, evolving and producing the high-quality, high-performance fuels for the next generation of engines and the products Americans rely on each time they start their cars,” said Chet Thompson, president and chief executive of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers.
As refiners have focused on making fuels cleaner and more efficient, petrochemical manufacturers have turned their attention to car components. Reducing the average car’s 3,800-pound weight by 10 percent can improve fuel economy by 4 to 6 percent, a range that at the upper end requires the car to be redesigned, according to Jay Baron of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
And plastic components have become even more essential as consumers demand more gadgets—and in some cases, more power, which means cars are getting heavier.
In addition, numerous electronics are found throughout new vehicles. From the central processing unit that oversees the running of the engine to the LED screen that displays everything from gasoline mileage to images on backup cameras, electronics have added weight to our cars and trucks. Many of these enhanced electronics wouldn’t even be possible without the advanced materials made from the very petrochemicals that are helping reduce weight and save fuel.
While thinner, stronger types of steel and aluminum have helped reduce car weight, additional efficiency gains are impossible with metal alone, meaning the future of the industry truly lies in mixed-material automobiles.
“It is a profound statement to say we now have mixed material cars,” said Baron, who is also a founding member of the Coalition for Automotive Lightweight Materials, which includes numerous petrochemical companies. “But when it comes to future weight reduction, plastics offer the greatest opportunity.”
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