A lightweight paneling breakthrough

Aug. 1, 2004
Recycling rocks! In England, scientists at Loughborough University are turning thousands of recycled plastic bottles and other waste into new lightweight

Recycling rocks!

In England, scientists at Loughborough University are turning thousands of recycled plastic bottles and other waste into new lightweight paneling for trucks.

Researchers at the university's Institute of Polymer Technology and Materials Engineering (IPTME) have helped to develop foam-filled panels for bodies of large commercial vehicles — primarily 3.5-metric-ton and 7.5-metric-ton dry freight trucks. The panels are typically 7'×13' for 3.5-metric-ton trucks and 7.5'×20' for 7.5-metric-ton trucks, but can be made to any length and up to 9' wide.

They weigh 60% less than the traditional plywood panels currently used — meaning trucks made with the new material will use less fuel or can carry a greater payload, reducing the amount of journeys needed to transport goods and helping businesses to save money.

By replacing GRP-faced plywood for the bodywork, payload is being increased by 529 lb on a 3.5-metric-ton truck and 683 lb on a 7.5-metric-ton truck.

Gerry Boyce, managing director of Euro-Projects (LTTC) Ltd, says the new panels cost about $550 more than the plywood panels for a typical 7.5 metric-ton truck. But with the weight savings of 683 lb, the payback is typically one day for a three-trip-per-day vehicle (three trips x 683 lb per trip at $1.68/lb = $3,433 earnings per day) or the company can reduce its fleet by one in six vehicles for the same load-carrying capacity.

Developed in partnership

The pioneering environmentally friendly product, called Panelplus, has been developed through funding from the Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP) and in partnership with Rothley-based technology transfer company Europrojects Ltd.

Companies using the product include Daimler Chrysler, Northgate Plc (the United Kingdom's largest truck-leasing company), Walkers Crisps, TNT, and Exel Logistics.

The net product of the recycled material is honeycomb panels, which can be produced in a continuous double belt press or can simply be press moulded, and are commercially available.

The skins are glass fiber reinforced PP, opening the possibility that the panels could also use steel or aluminum skin (which probably would be more acceptable in North America).

Boyce says there could be a market for Panelplus in the United States.

“If companies use GRP plywood for bodywork, then we believe there is a market,” he says. “However, a lot of companies in the USA use aluminum sheet and aluminum post, so we would have to do a cost-benefit analysis of the panels against this type of construction.”

Over $920,000 has been infused into the two-year study, aimed at dramatically increasing the amount of plastic waste recycled in the UK over the next five years. Euro-Projects has been working on thermoplastic composites and panels for eight years. Initial panels were first developed based on virgin plastics in 1997.

“It is very exciting to finally see the panels we have helped develop in use,” says IPTME's Barry Haworth, who has been leading Loughborough's involvement in the project.

“The benefits of these new panels are massive — not only are they made from recycled waste, they enable the vehicle to carry larger loads. Ultimately this could mean fewer trucks on our roads, and thus less road pollution. As a double whammy, it is also anticipated that the panels themselves will be recyclable at the end of their own lifetimes in service.”

It is now hoped the new lightweight panels will be used on a wide range of vans and trucks. Two of the first vehicles to be fitted with Panelplus were debuted March 26 at Loughborough University following their official unveiling at the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon, Warwickshire. The truck bodies were made by Alloy Bodies in the UK.

Other potential uses for the panels are already being investigated. Eventually they could be fitted to caravans, used for stock pallets, or developed into lightweight furniture.

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.