When mountains of waste become useful materials

What began with the STARTUP AUTOBAHN platform founded by Daimler could soon help reduce the company’s carbon footprint. Through the cooperation with UBQ Materials, a producer of bio-based plastics, some materials already used in vehicle and prototype construction could be replaced with climate-friendly UBQ composite material in the near future. A remarkable aspect is that this plastic is obtained from household waste.

With the goal of CO2-neutral production, the bio-based UBQ plastic is a promising building block in the sustainable use of materials. This bio-plastic made from household waste could soon be used in series production for lightweight construction in a car-trunk container. Prototype construction, the production of bus fenders, cable ducts and load carrier boxes could also benefit from the CO2-neutral recyclate in the future, depending on the results of further feasibility studies in 2021. By researching into this new resource, Daimler is taking another step toward a sustainable circular economy.

For six years, the team at UBQ Materials has been working on the new raw material to produce a homogeneous renewable material from food and garden waste, diapers, paper and packaging. They have been supported not only by consultants and investors, but also by renowned representatives from the fields of science, business and politics. The company’s supervisory board includes Nobel Prize winner in chemistry Prof. Roger Kornberg, the world-renowned sustainability expert John Elkington, and Connie Hedegaard, the former EU Commissioner for Climate Action. International cooperation has resulted in the bio-based plastic UBQ, which could replace conventional plastics in a wide range of areas in the future. It can be recycled more often than other plastics without deteriorating. UBQ thus represents a renewable source of raw materials that paves the way for a genuine circular economy.

Waste as the starting material: upcycling as an upgrade for the climate balance

It is estimated that the global consumption of plastics will quadruple by 2050 from the current 350 million tons to more than 1.35 billion tons. Extracting a new resource from this waste is not only the key to a more sustainable economy, but also to greater cost efficiency for companies. “We are monitoring the market changes brought about by the new plastic tax on non-recycled packaging waste. This new political framework, or a further developed one, could have an impact on the automotive industry,” says Birgit Klockenhoff from Mercedes-Benz Group Research and responsible for the cooperation with UBQ Materials. “An increase in market demand for recyclates can certainly be expected. To be able to operate efficiently in the long term, we need to acquire new additional resources.” The European Parliament wants to counteract the increasing volume of plastic waste and its environmental impact. The aim is to create a circular economy in which the focus is already on reusing and recycling in the manufacture of plastics and plastic products.

Birgit Klockenhoff from the Mercedes-Benz group research and development department is responsible for the cooperation with UBQ.

After successful tests, the UBQ material is now also being planned for new developments

When Birgit Klockenhoff and Torsten Harms, Head of the Lightweight Construction Team at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Hamburg, got to know the startup UBQ in Paris in 2019, they quickly agreed to test its innovative material. The development of a sustainable car-trunk container became a pilot project. “We wanted to know how the material would work during processing and then later on the component itself,” says Anton Kempel, the calculation engineer in Hamburg responsible for process simulation in lightweight construction: “At first we were not taken seriously: How is it possible that banana peel and baby diapers are included and the material fulfills the requirements? Many were surprised that the components really functioned as we expected them to.”

In line with Daimler’s sustainable business strategy, Kempel and his colleagues at the Hamburg plant contribute to reducing fleet consumption through lightweight construction and the CO2 footprint by using recyclable materials. “The components we produce at the Hamburg plant are suitable for using recyclates,” says development engineer Holger Kittler. “This is a further milestone on our way to a resource-conserving production.”

For Torsten Harms, the idea of UBQ has another positive environmental effect: “The material comes from a mixed mountain of waste. If it were simply left on the mountain of garbage, methanes would be produced, for example. And methane gas has a much higher greenhouse potential than CO2.”

Torsten Harms (front, left) and his team at the Hamburg plant are pursuing a clear objective: to continually reduce the CO2 footprint of the produced parts.

In lightweight construction, UBQ now comes into play as a filler material to further improve the CO2 footprint, explains Harms, who, together with his 15-member team, is advancing lightweight products in collaboration with his development colleagues in Sindelfingen. His mission is to get the right material to the right place. His team has added 15 percent of the biomaterial as granules to the plastic composition of the component, but findings show that the mechanical capabilities decrease too much with a higher proportion. Following successful tests under series-production conditions, the plastics experts now plan to use the UBQ material for new developments. “We would be the first to put the material into the vehicle,” says Holger Kittler.

The aim is to increase the proportion of recyclates as far as possible in the interests of a circular economy

But the demands on new materials are high. They have to be tested for odor, emissions, strength, durability and much more. Frank Hirlinger, responsible for material testing and approval, has been busy since the beginning of the year testing UBQ for its everyday durability and technical properties. “What the material must be able to do depends on the application,” says Hirlinger. “Does it have to withstand 120 degrees Celsius close to the exhaust? Does it have to withstand sunlight inside the car for years?” To find out how it behaves under a wide variety of conditions, his team heats the granulate in the oven, measures the emissions, pulls it apart or stores it in humid chambers. “It's like with a baking mix: a good mixture can become a good component if it is processed well,” says Hirlinger, explaining how the tests work.

UBQ passed the weeks-long heat tests at 120 degrees Celsius. The humidity test over more than 1,500 hours at 85 percent humidity runs until the end of the year. And then there is the media test, in which the material comes into contact with automotive fluids such as engine cleaner or paintwork cleaner. Because the UBQ material is supplied in batches and its composition could vary depending on the waste processed, Hirlinger has to carry out his measurements several times, so the tests will continue until 2021. The materials tester was surprised by the performance under heat. “Because the main components are lignin, which is the main component of wood, cellulose and sugar, I would not have expected this long-term strength.”

For him, as for his colleagues in lightweight construction, it is clear that the main advantage of the material is that it significantly reduces the components’ CO2 footprint. “The aim is that 25 percent of the plastics used per vehicle are made from recycled materials. We are already using numerous recycled plastics without anyone seeing or noticing.” UBQ scores particularly well in terms of cost-effectiveness, even compared to conventional polypropylene.

The UBQ material can be used in numerous ways at the Group

In view of the good results achieved so far, Birgit Klockenhoff has already started follow-up projects with colleagues in various specialist departments at the Group to examine further potential applications for the bioplastics. “Other promising projects are in the planning phase or are about to be implemented with the first prototypes,” says Klockenhoff. “If the prototypes are successful, our next step is to involve the series supplier and the entire supply chain, because it won’t work without our suppliers. This is already well advanced at the Hamburg plant.”

The aspect of sustainability is also important for Mustafa Colak of Daimler Buses in Istanbul, Turkey. He is responsible for the design of exterior components in bus development and is supervising the testing of UBQ for use in fender corners. “We aim for CO2-neutral products and use a lot of recycled material in bus production. The more UBQ we can use, the lower are the emissions,” says Colak, who is using the new plastic to produce prototypes for the first time. For his purposes, the UBQ-enriched component must not only be strong enough, but also paintable, bondable and foldable. In other words, usable as an exterior part and resistant to environmental influences.

Laboratory tests are still underway and paint adhesion is “a major challenge,” says Colak. “If everything goes well, then comes the installation test followed by the endurance test to see what the effects are like on the road. He expects results in the first quarter of 2021. "We are thinking about using the material in the interior of the bus as well.” This is music to the ears of Birgit Klockenhoff, who would not limit the UBQ technology to car parts alone. “There's a lot more that could be done,” she says. “In addition to the load carrier boxes, for example, there’s a lot of packaging where UBQ could help reduce the CO2 footprint. Because in the future, the material could also be foamed or processed in sheet form.”

Incidentally, a dream has come true for UBQ CEO Tato Bigio through the cooperation with Daimler, reveals Klockenhoff, who greatly appreciates the cooperative and professional collaboration at the highest technical level with the startup: “He told me that he had always wanted the material to be in a Daimler.” It looks like he’s well on the way to achieving that.

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