“A breeding ground for technology”: The technical side of motorsport’s sustainability push

Sustainability in motorsport goes beyond new electric series and the sustainable development of existing championships. It is also the driving force behind the work of technical suppliers like Bcomp and DHL.

Composites such as carbon fibre are prevalent in the motorsport industry, but they are wasteful to produce and difficult to recycle.

To overcome that challenge, Bcomp, a Swiss-based organisation specialising in alternatives to traditional lightweighting materials, has created a sustainable substitute from flax, which produces an 85 per cent lower carbon footprint during the manufacturing of a part from cradle to gate and which – on the raw material level – is biodegradable.

“Where we started is in sustainable lightweighting,” explains Johann Wacht, Bcomp’s motorsports and supercars manager. “When you think about
motorsport, most people look to carbon fibre, which has excellent mechanical properties, but it has some challenges on the sustainability side.”

“We come with a high-performance natural fibre product. It’s a renewable resource which allows us to create sustainable technologies that match the weight and stiffness performance of thinwalled monolithic carbon fibre.”

In recent months, Bcomp has been working in collaboration with Formula One team McLaren Racing to develop a sustainable natural fibre seat to replace the carbon fibre ones commonly used in the series.

Bcomp has produced seats for Formula One team McLaren Racing


“McLaren wanted to bring sustainable innovation to the sport, also in the area of lightweighting technologies,” explains Wacht. “Together we looked at possible applications on the car, starting with Lando [Norris’] seat. Now Daniel [Ricciardo] is also racing with a natural fibre hybrid seat.”

Compared to carbon fibre, the process of transforming flax fibre into high performance composite reinforcement is energy efficient and sustainable.

“The raw material originates mostly from western Europe, which is the biggest flax producer in the world,” says Wacht.

“Carbon fibre needs a lot of energy for carbonisation, which is a process where you heat up the carbon fibre to more than 1,000°C depending on which mechanical properties you need, consuming a lot of energy which results in significant CO2 emissions.

“Whereas when you look at natural fibres, they are CO2 neutral as the flax plant grows with the energy of the sun and absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere thanks to the brilliant process we all know as photosynthesis.”

Additionally, the cultivation of flax has a positive impact; the crop is perfectly suited for the practice of crop rotation with cereals or oil seed plants, for example, where it serves to improve soil quality and helps to increase yields by up to 15 per cent. Thus, it is not competing with food production.

Bcomp creates its products from flax, an environmentally-friendly alternative


“After you harvest the plant, it is left to lay on the ground for a couple of weeks,” says Wacht. “During this biological process – called dew retting
– microorganisms decompose the plant structure and release nutrients stored in the plant. These nutrients directly reenergise the soil making sure it stays healthy and fruitful. The partially decomposed flax plants are collected and mechanically processed to separate the individual fibres before they can be turned into a technical fabric.”

Inspired by the veins on a leaf, Bcomp’s proprietary powerRibs technology provides additional stiffness to its ampliTex technical fabrics while adding minimal weight, allowing components such as the natural fibre bodyworks on some of the latest GT race cars to achieve the same stiffness and weight performance as its carbon fibre counterparts but in a much more sustainable package.

“If you look at the veins under a leaf, these fine structures give stiffness to the leaf, as otherwise the leaf would just hang,” explains Wacht. “We’re mimicking this concept of nature in our natural fibre composites. It looks super simple, but there are more than ten patents on the technology already.”

In addition, the inherent properties of the powerRibs help confine the damage zone in a crash or other breakage situation. When breakage does occur, the material does not splinter or produce sharp shards as carbon fibre does.

Instead, it has a ductile fracture behaviour with blunt edges, reducing the risk for punctures and bringing significant safety benefits to the racetrack and mechanics.

I think that is also thanks to the power of motorsport because it is a breeding ground for technology. I think the industry as a whole is heading in the right direction as well.

As is the case with most technology applied in the automotive industry, Bcomp’s sustainable innovations are also to be utilised in road cars, as the result of a technology transfer from race to road. 

At the same time the company is also working to bring its products to other teams and stakeholders in the wider motorsport industry.

“We started with the technical aspects, going on to show proof of our concept in the motorsport world. Carrying this momentum, things are now clearly moving in the direction of road cars and supercars,” says Wacht.

“I think that is also thanks to the power of motorsport because it is a breeding ground for technology. I think the industry as a whole is heading in the right direction as well.”

“We want to collaborate with purpose-driven companies that are going in the same direction and want to make a positive change. That is something we want to do more and more in motorsport, so the collaboration with McLaren is ongoing. All we can tell you is to stay tuned –
there will be more in the future.”

In addition to lightweighting, sustainability is also a key consideration in other areas of motorsport, namely the logistics sector.

One organisation seeking to drive progress in the field is DHL, which provides logistics solutions to the likes of Formula One, Formula E and MotoGP, among other championships. 

“We have set ourselves the target to be carbon neutral by the year 2050, and to this end, will be investing €7 billion (US$7.6 billion) by 2030 into clean operations,” says Sabrina Kreienborg, head of global sponsorships and corporate brand marketing at Deutsche Post DHL Group.

DHL assists Formula One with logistics solutions


“With this investment, we will increase our use of sustainable aviation fuels, design all new buildings carbon neutral, offer a comprehensive portfolio of green products and electrify 60 per cent of our last-mile delivery.

“We are committed to science-based targets for carbon reduction, which is to reduce our carbon emissions to under 29 million tonnes by the year 2030.”

In addition, DHL Express and Eviation, the Seattle-area based global manufacturer of all-electric aircraft, has announced that DHL is the first to order 12 fully electric Alice eCargo planes – to be delivered by 2024.

“We are aware that the transportation sector contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions,” acknowledges Kreienborg.

“We are replacing our combustion engine fleet with electric vehicles. We have more than 15,000 electric vehicles in our fleet already. We’re also looking at other technologies to help reduce emissions in our fleet.”

 

Still, DHL is limited by what technology is currently available.

“That’s just the nature of our industry,” says Kreienborg. “One of the biggest challenges for us is technology becoming available. When we set ourselves our environmental protection targets, we, to a certain extent, were able to calculate already the savings that could be done with the technology available today. It’s that leap of trust that we’re making, that technology will become available.”

Despite this, DHL is hoping that its commitment to sustainability inspires the logistics industry.

“We were the first logistic global logistics company to introduce a measurable target for environmental protection,” explains Kreienborg.

“We hope that our commitments will inspire change in the industry and beyond, because we believe that it is important to us as a society that we all work together on this bigger objective of protecting our planet.”

We are committed to science-based targets for carbon reduction, which is to reduce our carbon emissions to under 29 million tonnes by the year 2030.

Looking to the future, DHL is eager to expand its involvement in making motorsport greener by supporting its existing partners in their efforts to
become more sustainable.

“We want to continue to pioneer together with our partners in all areas,” says Kreienborg. “We want to make a positive impact on this planet and the communities we operate in.

“We’ve already started looking into their strategies and how we can support them as our partners and customers and are keen on expanding our
collaborations.”


This feature was originally published in BlackBook Motorsport’s special report on sustainability, titled Racing with Purpose, in December 2021. Access the full report here.

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