InterviewA Schulman to make wheat straw, PP composite for Ford

12 November 2009 21:40  [Source: ICIS news]

Ford FlexBy Al Greenwood

HOUSTON (ICIS news)--US compounder A Schulman will produce a composite made of polypropylene (PP) and wheat straw for Ford, which the automaker will use to make storage bins in its 2010 Flex crossover vehicle, an executive said on Thursday.

The composite, called AgriPlas, contains 20% wheat straw, making it up to 10% lighter than plastic reinforced with talc or glass - a key point for automakers eager to reduce the weight of their vehicles, said Paul Boulier, vice president and chief marketing officer for A Schulman.

"That's the name of the game right now," Boulier said.

Stricter mileage and emissions regulations are driving the trend for lighter vehicles, which consume less gasoline.

Companies developing electric automobiles are also trying to reduce weight, since lighter vehicles put less demand on batteries.

The trend could provide more applications for Schulman's AgriPlas, Boulier said.

Indeed, Ford said it is considering the composite for other automobile parts, such as centre console bins and trays; components for door-trim panels; and arm rest liners.

At the same time, AgriPlas boosts the Flex's environmental appeal. Since the wheat straw is displacing PP, Ford expects to reduce petroleum usage by 20,000 lb/year (9 tonnes/year) and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 30,000 lb/year.

Schulman is already scaling up AgriPlas production for Ford, Boulier said. The company is producing the composite at its plant in Akron, Ohio.

The composite was developed by Ford, Schulman and the Ontario BioCar Initiative.

The later includes the universities of Waterloo, Guelph, Toronto and Windsor. The composite is BioCar's first production-ready application.

"It has really been a great collaboration," Boulier said. Schulman is a custom compounder, so it has experience with using different fillers.

"It is certainly a natural extension of the work we've done already," he said.

Schulman is developing other uses for AgriPlas, Boulier said. The composite has good colour and aesthetic qualities, opening up possible applications for consumer goods and office products.

"It's nice to see us thinking about natural materials and the role they can play in our product," Boulier said.

The wheat-straw composite is a first for automakers, according to Ford, an answer to modern-day problems of pollution and sustainability.

However, plant-based composites are nothing new to the chemical industry.

Bakelite, developed a roughly century ago, was a composite made of wood flour and phenol formaldehyde resins.

Company founder Henry Ford developed Fordite in the 1920s. Fordite was composed of wheat straw, rubber, sulphur, silica and other materials. It ended up in steering wheels.

Tufnol is still making composites made with cotton fabrics.

Doris de Guzman examines alternative processing, new technology, R&D and other sustainability initiatives in Green Chemistry
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