How “bio” can a car be? Quite a lot, as the Bioconcept car developed by Reutlingen-based Four Motors demonstrates. Former DTM driver Tom von Löwis and his team are currently working on a fourth-generation biofuel-powered Bioconcept car. The body parts and interior are made from fully or partially biobased materials and composites with plant-fibre reinforced duromers. The optimised combustion engines are powered with biofuels. Anyone who thinks this is just a nice little hobby is wrong. Renewable energy is central to the team's commitment to motor racing.
The car makers at the Reutlingen-based company Four Motors refer to themselves as “The green pioneers on the racetrack”. The team of green pioneers includes engineers, mechanics, former DTM driver and Four Motors CEO Tom von Löwis and the driver of the Bioconcept car, Smudo, who is also a rapper in the German hip-hop band “Die Fantastischen Vier”.
Team manager von Löwis began his racetrack career as a driver, amongst other things, in the German Touring Car Championship (DTM), but eventually gave up his sports career for financial reasons, as he himself admits. Many years later he met Smudo, now the team’s race driver: “At the time Smudo and I met, I was involved in the events industry. Die Fantastischen Vier's roadie told me that Smudo was keen to become a race driver and asked me whether I had any advice to give him,” says von Löwis. One thing led to another and Smudo, with his coach von Löwis, managed to achieve a fantastic 10th place in his first ever championship around 15 years ago. “We soon realised that we had to set up our own team if we wanted to continue,” says von Löwis. An innovative and new concept was required. They wanted to have a concept that would enable them to advance the development of regenerative energies and materials. “Racing cars have always been technology-heavy vehicles that are at the forefront of car development,” says von Löwis.
In 2003, the Four Motors team developed the “Flower Power Beetle”, a VW Beetle TDI. It was the predecessor of today’s Bioconcept cars that the team develops. In cooperation with the Union for Promoting Oil and Protein Plants (UFOP), which provided the team with rapeseed biodiesel, the “Bio-Beetle” achieved several class victories and became the first alternative racing car to ever win against fossil-fuel powered rivals. After achieving this level of success, the racing professionals simply had to continue. Von Löwis: “We wanted to build a new car that ran on biofuel and was mostly made with lightweight components from biobased and natural-fibre reinforced polymers.”
In collaboration with the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the Four Motors team developed its first Bioconcept car in 2006. The car, a Ford Mustang GT RTD, was then the world’s first car with body parts made of renewable resources. Doors, fenders, hood, trunk lid and the rear wing were all produced from plant fibres, then placed into prefabricated moulds and impregnated with a liquid biopolymer. Once hardened, the parts were so stable that they even withstood the extreme conditions of a long-distance race. The development of the biomaterials for the Bioconcept car was funded with assistance from the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BmEL) through its project management organisation, the Agency for Renewable Resources (FNR).
It turned out that car body parts made from plant fibres could entirely replace conventional car body parts made from glass or carbon fibres. The plant fibre cars were also lighter, faster and consumed less fuel. Flax, hemp and vegetable oils are all renewable materials that can be grown in Germany, used in place of finite fossil resources and either be disposed of in an environmentally friendly way or thermally recycled. In addition, composites made from natural materials do not splinter or leave sharp edges when they break. This is a great advantage both during the manufacturing process and when accidents occur. Such natural fibre-reinforced materials are already used for car interiors. External car body parts, which are exposed to greater strain, are much less likely to be made from biopolymers. The Bioconcept car has the potential to change this situation. The first “bio-racing car” was also powered by rapeseed oil-based biofuel.
However, the new Bioconcept car really had to battle to achieve good race results. Von Löwis recalls: “We used the Mustang for the first time in 2006 and suffered many setbacks. Regular engine damage and we even had to reconstruct entire car parts. We worked night and day on the car. In 2007, the Mustang achieved its first success.” After that, von Löwis and his team decided to start work on a second Bioconcept car. “We wanted an exotic car, a real racing car,” says von Löwis.
A Mégane Trophy with 243 PS was the second-generation Bioconcept car in 2009. Von Löwis’ team developed the car in cooperation with Renault. “For me, it was one of the nicest cars I have ever driven,” says von Löwis. Instead of a multi-piece body, this particular car had innovative biofibre components made of flax and linseed oil acrylate. The bio-racing car was powered with a B30 mix, a mixture of 30 percent biodiesel and 70 percent fossil diesel. The cooperation was based on a fleet trial that Renault was conducting in France and Spain with B30 biodiesel. The team completed several endurance races with the Mégane Trophy, including the legendary 24-hour Nürburgring race.
But that was not the end of the story: in 2010, Four Motors started collaborating with the Institute of Bioplastics and Biocomposites at the Hanover University of Applied Sciences, with the aim of optimising biomaterials for use in the third-generation Bioconcept car, which was until recently used in races. The “Bio-Rocco” is based on a VW Scirocco with an efficient TDI engine. It is powered with Rmax, an innovative, low-emission biofuel mix consisting of 50% rapeseed methyl ester (biodiesel), which is also used with a maximum of 7% in regular diesel, and 50% hydrotreated vegetable oil.
The car’s lightweight body consists of a natural fibre-reinforced biobased duromer; other interior and engine compartment components were also made from biobased plastics. Parts of the dashboard and the fuel line were made from thermally stable biopolymers and have for the first time ever been turned into quite complex geometrical components.
Since 2003, Four Motors’ Bioconcept cars have taken part in the German Endurance Championship VLN races and have won several races in the alternative fuels class on the Nürburgring. The Four Motors team is the first team in Germany that has made sustainable mobility its specialty. Its concept is based on the development of a new Bioconcept car every two to three years, taking on board the latest developments. The plan is to produce prototypes as platforms for environmentally friendly technologies, test them under extreme competitive motorsport conditions and provide an impetus for series production.
The time is ripe for the next generation of Bioconcept cars. Von Löwis: “In future, we will no longer produce diesel cars and the cars will run on a completely different type of fuel. We will use E20 to produce a truly spectacular Bioconcept car. “ Von Löwis is not disclosing any details about the new racing car, but he does have this to say about the new E20 biofuel concept: “E20 is an innovative mixture of sustainably produced bioethanol and conventional gasoline.” The company has also brought another important partner on board. CropEnergies, a Südzucker Group company that is also focused on climate-friendly mobility solutions. “We are entering a new era,” says the racing professional from Reutlingen. His first concrete objective is the top 50 long-distance races. Von Löwis and his renowned driver are both convinced that “green will win.”