From Seed to Sustainable Car Parts

Three Cohorts of ISD Students Work to Reduce Carbon Emissions in Auto Manufacturing

It is easy to overlook the amount of detail that goes into each component used to manufacture a car. But within those details lies a great deal of potential, particularly when it comes to sustainability. This potential has been the focus of three former students within ISD, whose work is contributing to a rethinking of how safe and natural materials can reduce carbon emissions and transform industries across the planet.

Kalyan Karthik Nandigam (class of 2022, Energy Systems Engineering Program), Zonta Owens (class of 2019, Manufacturing Program), and Xhulja Biraku (class of 2020, Manufacturing Program) represent the three cohorts of ISD students who have contributed to this research over the years. The research has focused on strengthening auto components with natural fibers to increase their viability in manufacturing while reducing the need for synthetic fibers, which are much less sustainable than their natural counterparts. This includes materials such as bamboo or flax, which are not as strong as the synthetic materials currently used but could be strengthened to be similar in strength while less costly to produce.

A change of this nature will have ripple effects beyond the immediate production of automobiles. An increased demand for natural materials would stimulate agricultural and farming processes to produce more of these clean materials.

“We’d create networks of farmers who would now be contributing to the global supply chain of car production,” said Dr. Miki Banu, one of the faculty leaders of this research, a research professor in Mechanical Engineering and the ISD Associate Chair for Doctoral Education and Research. Dr. Banu, together with Professor Alan I. Taub, a professor of Material Science and Engineering, established a new research direction at the University of Michigan. “This reduces carbon dioxide and makes for a neutral or negative carbon footprint in the production process from seed to car part.”

Over the years, this work was sponsored by M-Trac – MEDC, UM-Ford Alliance and BASF North America.

A Range of Project Takeaways

While all three students have been involved in aspects of this research, they’ve all taken different elements from the experience to bolster their future prospects.

Owens’ involvement in the research of bamboo prompted him to start his own e-commerce business while still in school. Owens received his Master’s in Manufacturing and is currently working as a consultant for the Chicago-based Bain Company before attending Harvard Business School in 2024.

Nandigam has a desire to not just study the world, but create new realities to create a more sustainable world. His family in India has an agricultural background, and he hopes to take the knowledge he’s gained at ISD and in this research back home to promote sustainable farming practices.

In addition to winning the 2020 ISD Capstone Project award for her work on this research, Biraku has also worked with BASF to help prototype the first 100% green console car made of natural fiber composites.

“The reason why I joined this project is to potentially save three million tons of CO2 emissions per year and pave the way for the integration of sustainability in the automotive industry and in general, of transportation systems,” Biraku said. “Climate change impacts communities worldwide and it is up to us researchers to create innovation that will solve the issues that such communities face.”

“I belong in the category of the believers; I believe that there is always a way to change the world for the better and this is what I am trying to do through my research. It requires hard work and perseverance, but the results will pay off.”

Finding ‘Blessings’ in the Continuing Legacy

While the value of participating in this research has unquestionably been a career highlight for these engineers, there is also an appreciation for carrying on the project from one class to another.

“’Blessing’ is the one word that I can use to describe my experience in the research project. Working on the research project with industry people gave me an essence of how industry-affiliated projects work,” Nandigam said. “Meeting new people during various stages of the project improved my interpersonal skills as well. Overall, I can tell that working on this project led a path to my future career.”