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Renewable Materials

We continue to use durable, plant-based materials because they provide many environmental, economic and performance benefits. These include lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; vehicle weight reduction and improved fuel economy; reduced manufacturing energy use; and a reduced dependence on petroleum-based plastics. They also help divert waste from landfill and generate new revenue opportunities for the agricultural sector.

Soy Was Just the Start

Around 8 percent of all petroleum oil goes into plastic and, once used, half of that is dumped into landfills; the rest often ends up in our oceans or is burned. Relatively little is recycled.

Our research scientists in the U.S., Germany, China and Brazil have been exploring ways to replace petroleum-based plastics with more sustainable materials since 2000. It’s been over a decade since Ford first used soybean-based foam, and since 2011 it’s been a key material in the seat cushions, seat backs and headrests of every vehicle we build in North America. To date, after more than 18.5 million vehicles and half a trillion soybeans, we’ve saved more than 228 million pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere – that’s the equivalent carbon footprint of 4 million trees in a year.

We’ve also been researching cellulose from trees in its nano form, and have found some very interesting properties. When added to plastics, nanocrystalline cellulose produces excellent sound damping. In foams, it’s found to significantly increase the mechanical properties of the material. We look forward to using these findings in our products soon.

Using the Whole Farm

Our renewable materials program has expanded to include a wide range of foams, plastics and composites derived from renewable resources (see our What’s in a Vehicle? graphic). We currently feature eight sustainable materials in our production vehicles: soy, wheat, rice, castor, kenaf (hibiscus), tree cellulose, jute and coconut. And as we continue to experiment, the list of renewable resources we are researching reads like an entire farm – tomato skin, bamboo (a remarkably versatile material), agave fiber (working with Jose Cuervo® in Mexico), dandelion roots and even algae. We’re also exploring innovative uses of carbon itself and are first in the industry to develop foams and plastics using captured CO2.

Around 300 vehicle parts are derived from renewable materials, many of which were pioneered by Ford. These materials reduce the weight of vehicle parts such as seat cushions, storage bins and door panels, meet all of our strict durability and performance requirements; and provide agricultural suppliers with new revenue streams.

More than 30,000 soybeans are typically used in a Ford vehicle for seat backs and cushions.

 Case Study

Bamboo: The Next Carbon Fiber?

It can grow a meter in a day, it’s compostable and has the tensile strength of steel. And in recent years, we’ve been working with suppliers to evaluate the viability of using bamboo in vehicle interiors. Some surfaces inside our vehicles could be made from a combination of bamboo and plastic, making them particularly strong.

Our team at the Nanjing Research and Engineering Centre has found that bamboo performs better than many other synthetic and natural fibers across a range of materials tests. It has also been heated to more than 212 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure it can maintain its integrity.

The benefits of bamboo have long been recognized, from its tensile strength – known to rival or even better some types of metal – to its speed of growth, reaching maturity in two to five years.

Bamboo is amazing. It’s strong, flexible, totally renewable, and plentiful in China and many other parts of Asia.”

Janet Yin

Janet Yin,Materials Engineering Supervisor, Nanjing Research & Engineering Centre, Ford Motor Company

Our Research Partnerships

We continue to research renewable materials and their potential applications at our research centers around the world, and through partnerships with both suppliers and non-automotive partners.

For example, along with Coca-Cola, Nike and Procter & Gamble, we co-founded the plant-based PET Technology Collaborative (PTC), a strategic working group focused on accelerating the development and use of 100 percent plant-based PET materials and fibers. Collaborations with these companies to further our sustainability efforts include:

  • The first automotive use of Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle plastic, used in the seat fabric, trim, carpets and headliner in a demonstration Focus battery electric vehicle (BEV)

  • Partnering with Procter & Gamble to use biomimicry, inspired by nature’s solutions, to solve some of the most challenging material issues facing our industries

As part of WWF’s Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance (BFA), we are working to support the responsible development of plastics made from plant material. And we were excited about recent laboratory success in generating polyurethane foams that meet general durability and performance requirements, which utilize CO2 as a feedstock.

A key question posed by the growing demand for electrified vehicles is whether there is enough lithium to meet the future demand for electric vehicle traction batteries. Working with researchers from the University of Michigan, we addressed this issue by first compiling data on global lithium-containing deposits and then comparing the world’s lithium resources with the range of likely future lithium demand this century for non-battery usages, portable electronics and electric vehicle batteries. We concluded that global lithium resources can support even a rapid and widespread demand for electric vehicles until at least the end of this century.