One of Ford Motor's strategies is to make their cars more environment-friendly by using plant-based chemicals or recycled materials. According to Ford, its vehicles are already 85% recyclable by weight, but it wants to increase its use of bio-based materials such as its seat cushions and seatbacks, which already use soybean-based polyurethane.
The 2010 Ford Flex also features the automotive industry's first application of wheat straw-reinforced plastic for the third-row storage bins. Ford said the natural fiber replaces energy-inefficient glass fibers commonly used to reinforce plastic parts.
Here is my recent interview with Deborah Mielewski, polymer technical leader for Ford Motor Company on more of their bio-based materials strategy:
Q: Aside from bio-based polyurethane foams, are there any other bio-based products/chemicals that are currently being used in Ford's automobiles? In what components of the car are they being applied on?
Mielewski: The soy-based foam is currently being used on the seat cushions and backs of 10 Ford/Lincoln models. The soy foam technology has migrated within Ford Motor Company incredibly fast. In addition, we have soy-based foam in the headliner of the 2010 Escape.
Last fall, we became the first automaker to utilize wheat straw (a bi-product of growing wheat) as a filler in the third row plastic bins on the 2010 Ford Flex. This material was developed in conjuction with the Ontario BioCar; a group of Canadian Universities and companies interested in developing sustainable materials for cars. Even though these bins are a small component, they save about 20,000 pounds of petroleum annually, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30,000 pounds each year.
One thing we've learned is that small environmental improvements really add up when you make millions of vehicles each year.
Q: What are the main reasons behind Ford's increase use of bio-based materials?
Mielewski: There are many reasons to develop these types of alternative materials. First, plastics are derived from petroleum, which is a limited resource. As the availability and price of petroleum increases, alternative materials for plastics will be welcome. We can utilize an agricultural crop that is either a waste product, such as the wheat straw filler, or available in excess. This gives farmers an additional use for their crops. When plants grow, they sequester carbon dioxide, so we can reduce total CO2 emissions and improve the lifecycle of materials when compared to petroleum-based plastics.
Some of the materials we are developing are actually compostable at the end of life, alleviating landfills from plastics that take hundreds of years to decompose. It is also interesting that some of these bio-based materials have unique properties, which for certain applications are superior to the current, petrol based materials.
Q: Who are the companies currently involved in development/production of bio-products that Ford use for its automobiles?
Mielewski: All of our seating suppliers currently offer a soy-based polyurethane foam product. Ford is working with university partners such as the Ontario BioCar and the GreenCentre to continue to develop new, sustainable materials. We also work with a multitude of companies to develop their materials to meet the stringent requirements of automotive.
The wheat straw reinforced plastic is supplied by A. Schulman. The wheat straw is supplied by 4 southern Ontario farmers to a processor (Omtec) and molder (Schulman) all in Ontario, Canada. It is quite a nice story of utilizing a waste product of growing wheat to locally produce automotive parts that are installed locally.
Q: What are the challenges that Ford and its car component suppliers face in incorporating biobased products to Ford's automobiles? (Cost? Performance? Material availability?)
Mielewski: All three (cost, performance and supply chain) can be issues. At Ford Research, we are concerned with the development of the material and it's performance. The development of soy-based foam took us about six years. There were many technical challenges that needed to be overcome, including odor, performance and scale-up issues. Each of these challenges were tackled individually, with the end result being a foam that met every specification for automotive performance and durability. Logistical issues, such as an additional tank for soy polyol in the foam plant, also needed to be addressed.
Q: What is Ford's overall strategies towards sustainable mobility?
Mielewski: Electrification is an important piece of Ford's overall product sustainability strategy that includes a range of fuel efficient and alternative fuel technologies including EcoBoost engines, six speed transmissions, power assisted steering, aerodynamic improvements and light weighting materials.
Ford's electrification strategy also leverages the most fuel-efficient powertrains, the most technically competent hybrids and our global vehicle platforms in order to develop affordable choices for consumers. Over the past year, Ford doubled the number and production of hybrids in our line up, delivering the most fuel efficient mid-size sedan on the market today - Ford Fusion Hybrid with 41 mpg city, 10 mpg higher than Toyota Camry.
The goal of Ford's electrification strategy is to deliver electrified vehicles that provide real world value to customers with a wide range of driving behaviors and conditions. These vehicles include hybrids, plug-in hybrids (PHEV) and pure battery electric vehicles (BEV) designed to improve fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions affordably for customers around the world.
Check out my article about Bio-based auto parts on ICIS Chemical Business' June 7 feature.