Design engineers in North America and Europe are reluctant to use biobased polymers in mechanical designs, while Japanese engineers are forging ahead.
Fitness for use is the first requirement of all engineers. But they split when it comes to environmental goals. European engineers evaluate new green compounds on how well they fit new European Union recycling requirements. Many Japanese engineers at leading companies such as Toyota and NEC are looking for a reduction in petroleum content and a reduction in greenhouse gases. American engineers are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Arguably, one of the most environmentally conscious American OEMs is Hewlett-Packard, whose interest in stewardship dates back to its founding. HP experimented with a printer housing made from polylactic acid (PLA) in 2001.
“The first problem we had was the polylactic acid we used came from genetically modified crops and that never could have been used in Europe,” says John Frey, who chairs Hewlett-Packard’s environmental program. “The other problem is that we weren’t really heat stable. I took one of the pilots to a meeting in downtown Houston and then left it in my car. When I came back, the whole shell had caved in around the printer mechanism.”
Developments have taken a far different turn in Japan.
OEMs are selling production models of laptop computers, mobile phones and even some cars that have parts made from plastic compounds that are partially plant-based.
NEC has been using a proprietary bioblend for mobile phone housings and hopes to begin large-scale use in two years. Fujitsu is using a PLA hybrid developed by Toray Industries to make the housing for its FMV-BIBLO notebook PC series introduced two years ago. Toyota has made spare wheel covers and automotive headliners from PLA and is exploring greater use of kenaf as a composite, as is Hewlett-Packard.
Hewlett-Packard’s Frey doesn’t quite see the point of the Japanese approach. “Where biobased materials have been used in the electronics’ industry, there’s a whole lot of virgin petroleum plastic (used in the compound). You get none of the environmental benefits. Each contaminates each other and you can’t compost the bio material,” he says.