Ford to 'Grow' Its Own Car Parts?

Sustainable materials are being researched at Ford's laboratories to replace petroleum

Coconut fibers, wood, hemp, dandelion root and other materials are being researched as replacements for traditional petroleum auto parts. Photo: Jennifer Berry, Earth911

What do mushrooms, dandelion root, wheat, soy and corn have in common? They may comprise key components of your car one day.

At the Forward with Ford futuring and trends conference in Dearborn, Mich., sustainable materials guru Deborah Molesky explained to a group of bloggers, journalists and media personalities that the automaker’s goal is to not only manufacture, but grow, its parts in the U.S.

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Molesky joked that her group was “not very popular” when they started in 2000 – and oil prices were only $50-$60 per barrel. But the team kept working, and by 2008 when oil prices moved above $100 per barrel, their products like soy-based foam for seats were developed.

“In a way, we were sort of neglected and left alone in the laboratory to develop this [...] Now, I’m proud to say that every vehicle built in North America now has soy foam in the cushions and backs,” she said.

The opportunity to make a significant reduction in a car’s environmental footprint is significant. For example, Molesky’s group worked with wheat straw, a byprodcut of growing wheat, and added the material to plastics to reinforce them. The hybrid materials launched in the 2010 Ford Flex in a bin in the third row. “That wheat straw bin reduces petroleum consumption by about 20,000 pounds and carbon dioxide by about 30,000 pounds per year,” according to Molesky.

Among a number of materials, sugars made from corn, beet and cane are under consideration for biodegradable plastic parts, while engineers are also researching wood technology for interior trim.

Using these products is especially challenging, considering the nature of their application.

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“It’s super, super fun to invent and develop materials for such a rigorious environment as in a car,” said Molesky. “It has to last 10, 15 years, and our ultimate goal is to have all these plastic materials composted into the ground and fertilize it to grow more plants for the next cycle.”

Ford is also currently using recycled materials in its cars, such as cotton from recycled jeans in the 2012 Focus as part of the carpet backing and sound absorption material.

Editor’s Note: Jennifer Berry was invited by Ford to attend the Forward with Ford Conference. Her travel, hotel, meals and experiences were covered by the conference. Neither Jennifer Berry nor any other representative of Earth911 was asked or required to write about the experience. Read more about Ford’s Sustainable Materials Strategy (.pdf).

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