Soy-based foam
Soy-based foam. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photos by Gerry Frechette

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Ford biomaterials tour

Vehicle shoppers are understandably most interested in aspects like price, fuel efficiency, low emissions, warranty, resale value, comfort….you name it, and most owners have figured them into the buying equation.

But how about environmental issues beyond what comes out of the exhaust, and end-of-life factors for individual parts or for the vehicle as a whole?

Take, for example, all those plastic parts throughout the car. Things like hard and soft interior trim, engine compartment pieces, and exterior trim. You might be surprised to learn that many such parts on today’s vehicles have a substantial plant-based component to them.

Wheat straw panels
Wheat straw panels. Click image to enlarge

Ford’s Biomaterials Tour visited the B.C. Institute of Technology in Burnaby, B.C., and showed its wheat straw, soy foam and recycled cotton parts to the BCIT auto shop students, whose program is supported by Ford.

On display were many applications of new approaches to environmental sustainability, using those materials. Wheat straw, for example, comprises 20 percent of the ingredient list of many plastic parts, with the first having been the third-row interior storage bin on the 2010 Ford Flex. Ford claims that this application alone reduces petroleum usage by some 20,000 pounds per year and CO2 emissions by 30,000 pounds per year – all with what is considered a waste byproduct of wheat that is usually discarded.

Ford was approached with the wheat straw-based plastics formulation by the University of Waterloo, as part of the Ontario BioCar initiative, funded by the Ontario government. The new plastic resin demonstrates better dimensional integrity than a non-reinforced plastic, and weighs up to ten percent less than other reinforced plastic formulations. Ford has begun using wheat-straw plastic in several other interior parts like trays and door trim panels, plus exterior parts such as the Mustang’s front spoiler.

Bioseat. Click image to enlarge

Also on display at BCIT were the two technologies Ford is moving forward with in the development of the so-called Bioseat. Several key components of the seat are derived from renewable resources. For example, its fabric is made from polylactide, a type of plastic that is entirely derived from corn and other crops. Not only that, but soy-based polyurethane foam is used to make the cushions in the seat. Ford claims that using such a seat would reduce CO2 emissions by 207 pounds per vehicle.

Soy foam is already in wide use in Ford vehicles, both in seats and headliners. Polylactide is still in the research phase, as it can biodegrade in 120 days versus up to 1,000 years in a landfill for a traditional, petroleum-based plastic. The main issue with such a quick decomposition time-frame is that it might begin the process long before the vehicle’s lifetime is over.

Other recycling is of the post-industrial variety, items that have been transformed into car parts after leading previous lives as consumer products. Cotton and other recycled yarns are made into seat fabrics. Detergent bottles, tires and battery casings become splash shields, air deflectors and engine cam covers. Nylon carpeting is made into nylon resin for other applications under-hood.

The possibilities are extensive, and growing by the year, as Ford and the other manufacturers work overtime to make vehicles more green and sustainable.

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