The search for the "Next Green Thing" continues. Through the Startup Autobahn initiative, Mercedes-Benz Group Research is cooperating with young entrepreneurs who focus on sustainable solutions. Smart ideas and forward-looking innovations are needed to minimise the ecological footprint. We took a closer look at some of the most exciting collaborations.
When Birgit Klockenhoff at Mercedes-Benz Group Research learned that her team would be awarded the "Sustainability Award in Automotive in 2021" for their cooperation with the Israeli startup UBQ Materials, it was confirmation of a lucky find. Back in 2019, the collaboration with the manufacturer of bio-based plastic derived from household waste quickly proved to be promising. The climate-friendly recyclate can not only proportionally replace plastic in the injection moulding process, but can also be foamed or used as a film. Mercedes-Benz Cars and Mercedes-Benz Bus & Truck are currently testing the use of the UBQ material for various components worldwide. The bioplastic is already being used as an admixture in filaments for 3D printing, for instance in prototype construction. And the newcomers from Tel Aviv are not the only startup with which Mercedes-Benz Group Research is cooperating on the road to green zero.
Twelve, which calls itself the "carbon transformation company", also offered a compelling and innovative business idea. Thanks to its innovation, last year, Mercedes-Benz was able to produce the world's first vehicle component made with carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions extracted from the atmosphere. The C-pillar trim of the B-Class contains plastic obtained from recycled greenhouse gases.
Stanford students Kendra Kuhl, Etosha Cave and Nicholas Flanders had been tinkering in the lab for three years before they made their pitch to industry. Their invention: a so-called electrolyser that breaks CO₂ down into its constituent parts using catalyst technology. Their objective: by converting CO₂ emissions, to create new substances that can be used as ingredients for products or as fuel, thus simultaneously removing climate-damaging greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The carbon contained in CO₂ is an important component of many plastics and is used, among other things, in the production of polycarbonate, which is used in many vehicle parts.
By 2019 they were ready: with an electrolyser the size of a washing machine, the young scientists from Berkeley, California, USA, who had meanwhile founded a startup, were looking for cooperation partners in industry. The delight in Berkeley was great when Twelve (then still Opus 12) received an invitation to present at STARTUP AUTOBAHN in Stuttgart. The jury of research and development experts was looking for visionary approaches for use in series production. Among them was Udo Gayer, Manager of New Business in Production Planning at Mercedes-Benz Cars. He was immediately hooked on the idea of the electrolyser: "How about us actually creating a component together?", founder Nicholas Flanders remembers being asked by Udo Gayer after his presentation. "I said: Let's do it!" In early 2020, Twelve worked with a Daimler plastics supplier to convert CO₂ into polycarbonate. This was then used as a raw material for the production of the C-pillar in the B-Class. In other words: the startup makes usable material from emissions that are already in the atmosphere.
"With this pilot project, we first want to show that it really is possible to produce materials from processed CO₂", says Udo Gayer. "If we were to actually go into series production with recycled carbon in vehicle parts, then renewable electricity, for example from an offshore wind farm, would be a prerequisite for production in Germany so that the CO₂ balance is right in the end." In the long term, thanks to electricity from wind power, the elimination of crude oil and the reduction of CO₂ emissions, the impact of the C-pillar component on global warming, i.e. its GWP value (GWP = Global Warming Potential), could be improved by seven percent, according to Gayer's assessment. "And you could make many more components from converted CO₂. We achieved the proof of concept for polycarbonate as a constituent of plastic in 2020 with a C-pillar for the B-Class, and we are working on polyurethane." A new vehicle contains hundreds of kilograms of polymers, which in the future could all be made from CO₂, according to Nicholas Flanders.
In the meantime, Twelve's electrolyser has reached the size of a shipping container. "We want to expand our technology to be able to convert larger amounts of CO₂", says Nicholas Flanders. "There are so many things in our lives that are made from oil and that we can make from CO₂ instead, for example the insulation for houses, foam materials in seats, or fuels. I believe we will also be able to electrify cars with saved, converted CO₂ in the future." The goal of the young entrepreneurs is ambitious: by 2030, the Californians want to convert at least half a billion tonnes of CO₂ per year into new basic materials and use them to produce millions of car parts, among other things. Whether in car fittings, running shoes or in jet fuel - the team at Twelve wants to reduce almost ten percent of global CO₂ emissions in the long term by using CO₂ instead of fossil fuels in products and fuels. Udo Gayer also sees a lot of potential in this disruptive technology. He is fascinated by the idea that a CO₂ cycle could develop that would allow less oil or natural gas to be used in the manufacture of chemical products in the future.
Biomyc also specialises in sustainable materials that support an environmentally friendly circular economy. Founded in 2018 in Sofia, Bulgaria, the startup also made it on the STARTUP AUTOBAHN shortlist in 2019. Biomyc Ltd. is an eco-design company that specializes in innovative materials and sustainable product design. Its main expertise is in mushroom technology, additive manufacturing and simulation and sustainable product design. The company not only sells resource-saving raw materials, but also works with its clients to develop solutions for their use in production and logistics. "Our focus, besides sustainability analysis, is design expertise, designing and implementing materials in the best possible way", says founder Atanas Enev. Since the end of 2019, Atanas Enev, Bernd Gerding, Product Planner Seats in Sindelfingen, and Raju Patil, Lead Engineer for Product Planning Seats in Pune, India, have been working as a team to develop sustainable assembly protectors for production.
"These components, which are placed in the door cut-out of the car body to protect it from scratches before the seat is installed, have so far been made of polyethylene, a completely normal plastic", explains Bernd Gerding. "To make the assembly protectors more environmentally friendly, we worked with Atanas to think about how we could design them so that the worker would use them happily and properly." With this, the international team broke new ground: the task was not only to test a new material, but also to develop the design for it with Biomyc as a service provider. Six different sustainable eco-materials were tested during the research phase including Biomyc's favourite, a biodegradable material derived from mushrooms, but its minimal material thickness was even too thick for the application. Then the startup proposed alternative sustainable raw materials from its repertoire – sustainable filaments for a 3D printing process, with which it wanted to manufacture the assembly protectors. In the end, it became a win-win situation for all involved: "We found a cool new material and a design that fits multiple vehicles and thus saves more resources", Gerding tells us. The new assembly protectors, which consist of an industrially compostable, plant-based hard material as well as bio-based flexible material, are now being used in production in Sindelfingen for the S-Class and the new EQS. The hard material is a plant based engineering grade material that behaves like conventional ABS plastics, with about half of it made up of recycled ingredients. "For the flexible filament part, rapeseed is used as an active ingredient instead of mineral oil", explains Atanas Enev. "The material has half the carbon footprint but offers more elasticity." The team is currently optimizing the durability of the components. "The aim is that they can be used for a year", says Bernd Gerding. The sustainable protective parts are also currently being tested at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Bremen.
Thanks to the CAD data provided by Raju Patil from the sister team at Mercedes Benz Research & Development Indiaand the joint design development process, it has been possible to meet all the requirements of individual Mercedes-Benz models with sustainable, recyclable and at the same time standardised assembly protectors – while also taking climate protection into account. The production of new assembly protectors reduces associated CO₂ emissions by at least 70 per cent.
The important thing is getting the opportunity every day to put existing ideas into a different form, says Raju Patil with regard to collaborative design development, "and you should share the new idea with others". Atanas Enev sees this as a prerequisite for innovation within a company: "The main challenge is to listen to people who want to use their idea to optimise something in their working environment. Because the best ideas come from people working on them."
The process is based on the principle of artificial photosynthesis: a catalyst uses electricity, water and metal nanoparticles to break down the CO₂ molecules into their atomic parts and assemble them into new molecules. "From this, something valuable can once more be recovered, such as methane for fuels, ethylene for plastics or synthesis gas", Flanders explains. "As a supplier, we can compete technically with the conventional material, but with a smaller CO₂ footprint. The key to this is renewable energy." Ultimately, all energy expenditures in the production chain must be in proportion to the ecological benefit. This requires the use of wind power or solar energy.