Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

The P-Word: Guess Which Material Shines in New BMW Electric & Hybrid Cars?

Two new BMWs—a fully electric city car and a four-seat, hybrid sports car—unveiled in Frankfurt, Germany on July 29, 2011 are more than radically cool vehicles. They also mark another step forward for reinforced plastic composites in the automotive sector.

Body panels of BMW’s new i8 hybrid sports car (left) and i3 fully electric city car are carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, a first for the German carmaker.

The BMW i3 city car and the BMW i8 hybrid sports sedan each have a lightweight aluminum chassis and a “reinforced carbon-fiber body” that the company says compensates for the weight of the batteries. I put those words in quotes because the press material distributed for the launch uses carbon, carbon fiber, and CFRP to describe the bodywork, seemingly saying the structure is carbon. Is it that they don’t want to say what the carbon fibers are reinforcing,  or what is holding them together in those body panels?

The “P” in CFRP stands for plastic, which I finally found deep in the ample press material, where CFRP is explained as carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic. The P-word might be used again, I don’t know, but there’s no way to hide the actual CFRP—all the body panels are made of it, and they look good—really good. And if BMW’s engineers are betting on them to perform, the odds are extremely good that they will.

Other carmakers agree.

Porsche and performance electric carmaker Tesla are working with composites, and Land Rover’s new Evoque uses plastic composites for lightweighting. Jaguar is said to be developing a car expected to be one of the fastest in the world, and the C-X75 will also be fuel-efficient thanks to carbon-composite construction and a hybrid power plant, among other things.

BMW i8 sports sedan uses plastics and natural materials

BMW uses natural materials in the new i8, but the interior shows the designers also are using plastics—strikingly.

The new BMW i8's doors could be plastic

The BMW i8’s transparent, wing-type doors could be quite heavy in glass, but shaped as they are, they well might be plastic. BMW wasn’t saying at the intro.


Speaking of power plants, hats off to a dedicated engineer who may have reached his goal of making a practical composite engine block. Florida-based Matti Holtzberg has made a dozen versions of a composite engine block using a six-piece mold with a removable core for the oil passages. He followed the design of Ford’s 2-liter Duratec engine block but his composite version is 20 pounds lighter, in an industry happy to shed an ounce or a few grams. Car and Driver has more details, including a chronology of Holtzberg’s development of composite engine components that starts in 1969 in Hackensack, NJ. And let’s hear it for engineers who don’t give up on plastics.

Monday, October 4th, 2010

When Autumn is in the Air, Plastics Keeps You Warm and Flu-Free

During a recent blog I wrote about how plastics helped keep us cool in the warm summer months.  Now with the temperature dropping, the days getting shorter, and the football season getting underway,  autumn is definitely in the air. And thanks to plastics, you can stay warm and healthy whether your are inside or out.

On the housing front, plastics help maximize energy efficiency and performance.  Plastic foam insulation, such as spray polyurethane foam, expands to insulate mid- to larger-size areas of your home, such as walls, attics and roofs. This insulation improves your home’s energy efficiency, and helps keep rooms at the desired temperature.  Polycarbonate can be used in windows since its low thermal conductivity can help to reduce heating and cooling costs.

And don’t forget plastic house wrap technology.  Plastic house wrap technology reduces the infiltration of outside air and helps to drastically reduce the energy required to heat the home.  Also if you are indoors you can always throw a log in the fireplace (or for the easy route you can put a Duraflame log in – just remember to remove its polyethylene packaging first). 

When you are outdoors in the fall, plastics play a key role in keeping you warm.  Personally, I’m partial to the fleece jackets made from post consumer recycled soda bottles.  Over the course of 13 years the company who developed this technology saved some 86 million soda bottles from the trash heap.  That’s enough oil to fill the 40-gallon gas tank of a Chevy Suburban 20,000 times.  And when the fall rains arrive in the D.C. area, I want to make sure my feet stay dry.  Thankfully I have many options including waterproof boots (that utilize waterproof expanded polytetrafluoroethylene membranes).  Another option is to put on your “Wellies” which are also waterproof and are most often made from rubber or polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

In order to stay healthy this fall, don’t forget to get your flu shot.  Some flu vaccines are being made in bio-process containers that are made of plastics. The plastic is converted from medical grade resins and polymer films, and created in multi-layer sizes that range from a deck of cards to a pick-up truck.  Their use is to grow cell cultures in controlled environments which then yield the proteins that are the basis for new drug therapies as well as the more common flu vaccines.  Also, the flu shot will likely be administered using plastic syringes made from polypropylene, vinyl or acrylic.  And if you happen to be around someone who is under the weather because they didn’t get his or her flu shot, don’t forget your hand sanitizer stored in a recyclable PET bottle.

 So whether you are inside or out, plastics can make these chilly days and nights of autumn a bit more tolerable and healthy too.

Friday, August 27th, 2010

President Obama Cites SPI Member “MGS Plastics” in Wisconsin Clean Energy Manufacturing Speech

President Obama mentioned SPI member company MGS Mfg. Group (Germantown, Wis.) in a speech given on August 16th after he toured the facilities of ZBB Energy Corporation, an MGS customer also based in Wisconsin. Obama shook hands with MGS Mfg. Group CEO Mark Sellers and used both companies as an example as he urged support for  U.S. manufacturing:

“Because of the steps we’ve taken to strengthen the economy, ZBB received a loan that’s helping to fund an expansion of your operations. Already, it’s allowed ZBB to retain nearly a dozen workers. And over time, the company expects to hire about 80 new workers. This is leading to new business for your suppliers, including MGS Plastics and other manufacturer here in Wisconsin.”

ZBB makes batteries used to store electricity from solar cells and wind turbines.  MGS Mfg. Group, an injection molder and moldmaker, provides complete development services to ZBB, including part and product design, tooling, molding, and other manufacturing solutions.


Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Polystyrene Food Containers Help Keep You Out of the Hospital

President's Post

(The following column, sans links, recently appeared in the Janesville (Wis.) Gazette in response to an earlier opinion piece concerning polystyrene take-out food containers.)   

I am troubled by the rise in food-borne illnesses and disease that our society would witness if the irresponsible opinion expressed by Julie Backenkeller of the Rock Environmental Network concerning polystyrene food containers were ever taken seriously. When we take home food from our favorite restaurants we should be confident that it is packaged in a safe, sanitary container. We should not have to worry if it has been infected by E. coli, salmonella or parasites.

We can all agree about the need to prevent the spread of germs and bacterial disease. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 76 million illnesses occur, more than 300,000 persons are hospitalized, and 5,000 die from food-borne illness in the United States each year. Public health organizations encourage the use of single-use food service products, including polystyrene, because they are sanitary and provide increased food safety – particularly in hospitals, schools, and restaurants where it is critical that the foodservice ware be hygienic. Reusable china and glassware depend on washing after use. But consistent and thorough washing is not always the case: A 2002 study in Las Vegas found that 18 percent of reusable items tested had higher than acceptable bacterial counts.

Reusable plates and cups also have significant impacts on the environment.  They require copious amounts of water and energy to clean, time and time again. Plastic foodservice packaging conserves these resources and allows restaurants, schools and hospitals to save the water, energy, detergents and labor—required to sanitize reusables. Compared to glass, paper and aluminum, plastic foodservice packaging uses fewer resources and creates fewer emissions to manufacture, weigh less and produce fewer air emissions during transport. Check out this study, as well as what these students concluded

What is filling up landfills?  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the number one material is paper at 31%. How about plastic foodservice products? Only about 1%. What about litter? According to a 2007 study by Keep America Beautiful, “Take out food packaging [both paper and plastic]…on average comprised only 4.1 percentof the total visible items on state roadways.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates the safety of food contact packaging and has approved the use of polystyrene since 1958.  Polystyrene also meets the stringent standards of the European Commission/European Food Safety Authority and the Hong Kong Food and Environmental Hygiene Department for use in packaging to store and serve food. 

As the leader of the plastics industry trade association, I stand by plastic foodservice products.  They help keep us safe from food-borne illnesses. Citizens in Janesville and across the country should be confident that polystyrene foodservice containers, when used properly, are a safe and smart choice.

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Cruel Summer? Despite the Heat, Plastics Keep Us Cool

It’s the middle of July here in Washington, D.C. and the temperature has been over 100 °F much too much for my liking of late. Thankfully plastics continue to play a critical role in keeping things cool both indoors and out.

From a housing standpoint, plastic building products promote the efficient use of energy and other resources. For example, walls that use structural insulated panels made with expanded polystyrene (EPS) can help homeowners save hundreds of dollars annually on heating and cooling bills. EPS starts out as a plastic pellet and ends up as nearly 95 percent air which is a very effective insulator. Another example is polycarbonate which can be used in windows. In addition to being lightweight and shatter-resistant, polycarbonate has low thermal conductivity, which can help to reduce heating and cooling costs. And what about plastic house wrap technology? Plastic house wrap technology reduces the infiltration of outside air and helps to drastically reduce the energy required to heat or cool the home. So with these technologies (and, of course, air conditioners and fans  — which have plenty of plastic parts) one can keep cool indoors.

When outdoors, what you wear can make a difference. I’m partial to the clothing that uses wicking technologyto keep you cool. Traditional cotton clothing tends to soak up and retain sweat, making the wearer unable to cool themselves off properly and making the garment heavier. Wicking technology utilizes fabrics that move sweat away from the skin to the outer surface of the fabric, where it evaporates. Many of these fabrics are made out of polyester fibers and often can be recycled through program’s such as the Common Threads Recycling Program.

Getting in the water is, of course, a favorite way to keep cool in the summer. Most bathing suits are made from plastic materials such as polyester, nylon and Lycra (or Spandex). Of course, we have blogged here before about the uproar in competitive swimming circles concerning new high tech suits made from polyurethane.

In addition, many above ground pools and most inflatable wading pools are made from some combination of PVC (which has excellent resistance to damage via abrasion, impact and sunlight), polypropylene and polyester mesh. Backyard pools also depend on flexible, durable and easy-to-clean vinyl liners to keep their inner surfaces smooth on feet and protected from sunlight, abrasion and water-treatment chemicals. Swimming pools with vinyl and polypropylene covers bring safety and peace of mind to pool owners with very small children. Even diving boards are usually covered with polyurethane epoxy resin paint that creates a non-skid surface to prevent dangerous slips.

So whether you are indoors or out, plastics play an important role in making these hot days more bearable.

Photo courtesy of Infrogmation of New Orleans