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How soon could car seats enter the 3D comfort zone?

23 May 2013

Vehicles seats are normally made of polyurethane foam, a thick material that is expensive to recycle and ends up in dumping sites or being incinerated.

Scientists working under the umbrella of the 'GREENUP' project are now working on substituting polyurethane foam with a '3D' fabric. This type of textile is normally used in applications such as backpacks’ nets and padding.

For cars seats, it is combined to leather butts recovered from seat covers and produced through a 100 percent heavy metals free tanning process.

This novel textile is made of 100 percent recycled polyester yarn produced from the waste generated during different production steps of automotive and other transportation industries.

“At the end of life the polyester could easily be returned to the company that made the yarn and be processed to produce new yarn,” explains project co-ordinator Javier Jiménez, head of the textile technologies division at the Technology Centre Leitat, in Terrassa, Spain.

“The leather could instead be recovered for products that do not require a high-quality material such as ground leather used to make the interior soles of shoes,” he adds.

Substituting foams with 3D textile seems likely to bring several advantages. It has a higher recyclability, transpirability, permeability and is more rot-proof. However, it offers some inconvenience too. It has a higher raw material cost, longer processing due to the need to assemble different layers and requires new investment in machinery. However, these downsides may be counter-balanced by the fact that the process is emissions free and works at low temperatures.

The EU End-of-Life Vehicles (ELV) Directive requires, by January 2015, the reuse and recovery of all ELV to be increased to a minimum of 95 percent of the average weight of each vehicle, per year. It also requires the reuse and recycling of a minimum of 85 percent of each vehicle.

Some recycling industry advocacy representatives point to the added value of this approach in terms of sustainability. “Any initiative to increase recycling is good for Europe’s resource efficiency,” comments Antonino Furfari, recycling and advocacy manager at European Plastic Converters in Brussels.

But seats constitute a relatively small fraction (approximately 5 percent) of the total car weight. So he does not believe this technology will contribute significantly in ensuring compliance with the Directive.

The recycling of materials from ELV has been in discussion for years but textiles are still not easily recycled because they have to be washed. A possible solution could be in developing special fibres with a self-cleaning effect, such as nanostructured polyester fibres.

The project partners are currently exploring the possibility of developing a mixed structure textile combining polyester and polyurethane. They are also focusing on the railway sector, for which they are now developing a prototype train seat.

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