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Volvo Car Corporation: Borrowing a leaf from nature to deliver on sustainable mobility

22 September 2005

If Volvo Cars innovative designers have their way, one day in the future you will be getting into a Volvo where much of the interior is literally borrowed from nature utilizing fabrics, floor mats and other materials based on renewable and sustainable sources such as hemp, jute, rapeseed and soya.

As part of a visionary roadmap to sustain humankind’s future mobility through 2020 and beyond, Volvo Cars environmental thinking goes way beyond studying new technologies to replace conventional oil-burning engines with hybrids and alternative fuel options. Volvo Cars' research and design teams are also powering towards a vision in which by 2020 the textiles and materials in its cars will increasingly use renewable natural products.

"We are accelerating into the fast lane of the green auto revolution by taking key steps today towards seeing drivers and passengers sitting in Volvo cars with ‘hard’ components such as dashboards and ceilings made of flax and cellulose rather than petroleum-based polymers, and enjoying comfortable seats using natural fiber and soya-based foam fillings," says Katarina Sundqvist of Volvo Cars R&D vehicle engineering department.

Bio-based products make huge sense
Integrating bio-based products into Volvo Cars to replace petroleum-based components makes huge sense for a number of ecological and economic reasons, says Ms. Sundqvist. "Using bio-based products would reduce the need to transport materials since many agricultural parts are made locally. Bio-based products are also easy to manufacture, help reduce agricultural waste and improve biodegradability and recyclables."

After two years of development, Volvo Cars has started pilot production of a load floor tray that replaces traditional polyester with 100 percent biodegradable flax. Easy to break down and compost, the cellulose tray also gives better noise reduction qualities. Volvo Cars says the natural materials used in the tray can also be used to make hard panels such as central consoles or pillar panels in its vehicles.

"Not only are natural fibers such as sisal, hemp, jute and flax a renewable, sustainable resource, but bio-fibers also reduce both the weight of a car and the cost of materials," says Anders Högström of Volvo Cars interior and climate engineering strategy department. "Replacing glass fiber with lower density natural fiber can slash the weight of material used in a car by up to 30 percent of the material replaced – contributing to lower fuel consumption and less pollution!"

Benefits of replacing glass fiber with natural fibers
Volvo Cars 2020 vision also envisages using naturally grown fibers to replace glass fiber in plastics and resins.

"In addition saving weight, the benefits of using natural fibers include improved damping characteristics, less abrasion on tooling, and better recyclability," adds Anders Högström. "Thermoset materials using natural fibers cut petroleum dependence and deliver cost and performance advantages. The bio-based materials developed by Volvo Cars also give improved safety because natural fibers absorb energy extremely efficiently in the event of side collisions and do not crack or splinter."

Today, some 85 percent by weight of a Volvo car is recyclable, with 26 percent comprising plastics and other non-metallic materials. Volvo already uses renewable materials in close to 100 vegetable-based components, mostly sound absorption blocks or mats made of cotton fibers. However, a number of door panels and head linings are also based on renewable sources -- and Volvo Cars believes it switching even more to materials based on bio-products could contribute to reducing global use of crude oil for plastics by around 550,000 barrels annually by 2020.

"But our vision for 2020 is to leap even further ahead. We are only at the start of an exciting journey designed to make Volvo Cars one of the absolute environmental leaders among makers of premium cars," says Lex Kerssemakers, Senior Vice President, Brand, Business and Product Strategy at Volvo Cars.

Committed to a cleaner ecological footprint
As part of its commitment to create a cleaner ecological footprint, Volvo Cars believes moving to use of biopolymers, which can compost, will decrease both the use of finite resources and waster.  Underlining Volvo Cars’ intent to be as acclaimed for its environmental contributions as for its attention to safety, Mr. Kerssemakers adds: "Our aim is to clean up our ecological footprint, as well as enhance the opportunities for individuals to benefit from sustainable mobility."

Although Volvo Cars carries out much of its research internally, the company has forged strong collaborative links with the Ford Motor Company and external suppliers and technological institutions such as the Chalmers Institute of Technology in Gothenburg.  Challenges overcome have included ensuring natural product can withstand high temperatures and cope with moisture and damp.

A strategy for putting human well-being and the environment first
With its vision for 2020 Volvo Cars is exploring an environmentally friendlier future where human health, well-being and the environment are prioritized by its safe, attractive and ecologically sustainable mobility solutions. Mr. Kerssemakers adds: "Our vision is to be part of the solution for the main environmental challenges for the automotive industry – climate change, air quality, oil dependency and traffic congestion."

Knowing it cannot achieve sustainable mobility alone, Volvo Cars focuses on areas where it can most contribute – energy efficiency, health and personal mobility. Thus, Volvo Cars is pursuing a company-wide strategy for sustainable mobility geared to manage business processes, projects and product development in line with its sustainability aspirations.


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