Ecomaterials Lab: GM turns used oil booms into Volt parts

PopTech's weekly Ecomaterials Labs series is part of our ongoing, focused look at next-generation sustainable materials innovation.

General Motors announced last December that it was planning to recycle some 100 miles of plastic boom material into parts for use in its Chevrolet Volt. This past month, Fortune magazine showed us the fascinating process by which this oil-soaked waste becomes a fully functioning car part.

First, Heritage Environmental separates the hard containment booms from the soft, absorbent type. Only the soft ones, which are made from recyclable polypropylene, are used in the Volt. In all, GM has processed 120,000 booms or 1.2 million feet worth.

Next, Mobile Fluid Recovery puts the booms in a high-speed centrifuge, which separates liquids - primarily saltwater and crude oil - from solid material. This light and fluffy centrifuged material is sent in trash bags to Lucent Polymers in Evansville, IN. All of it - even the bags - goes into a vat where it is melted down, chopped up and emerges looking like popcorn.

In Goshen, IN, car parts maker GDC compounds the material into a blend of boom, car tires, plastic scrap and recycled bottles. It all goes into a mold to make the finished part: an air baffle that covers the Volt's radiator and keeps it cool.

The air baffle, made of 25% Gulf boom material, is sent to GM's Hamtramck Assembly Plant in Detroit, where it is fitted directly above and on either side of the radiator. GM says it has enough of the material to make parts for 10,000 Volts, the first year's total production run.

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Images: Fortune

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