Ford is first to 'Grow' Automobile Parts On The Farm
PLASTIC, LONG regarded as villainous by environmentalists, was born in part from an effort to protect natural resources. In the 1860s, inventor John Wesley Hyatt, aware of the shrinking supply of elephant tusks for billiard balls, concocted a durable replacement for ivory: an early form of plastic. The main ingredient in this new material? Petroleum.
While Hyatt’s creation may have helped to benefit elephants, it’s turned out to be not so great for the Earth. Roughly 8 percent of all the oil used in the world each year goes to making plastic — half as raw materials and the remainder to power factories, according to the Worldwatch Institute. And once used, somewhere between a quarter and half of all plastic is dumped into landfills every year. Much of the rest is burned and relatively little is recycled. Millions of tons wash into oceans annually.
Spurred by concerns around cost, supply and environmental protection, scientists are researching ways to replace oil as the main ingredient in plastic. And one place they’re finding answers is down on the farm.
Specifically, they’re figuring out ways to turn crop byproducts into plastic. Rather than using the actual food crops to create these bioplastics, researchers are using the byproducts left over after the crops are processed for food.
From common crops like tomatoes, soybeans and wheat straw to more exotic plants like hemp, eucalyptus and agave fiber (a byproduct of tequila production), scientists are experimenting with turning crops into car parts, as well as a host of other manufacturing applications.
The shift from non-renewable petroleum to renewable plants hasn’t been easy. But some companies are accelerating the adoption of plant-based plastics.
“For years, manufacturers have been looking for alternatives to expensive or resource-scarce materials,” says Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor ofGreenBiz Group, a consultancy focused on sustainable business issues. “But material innovation is one thing. The harder part of the story is bringing materials to market.”
DR. DEBBIE MIELEWSKI
Senior Technical Leader of Materials Sustainability at Ford
IN THE BIOMATERIALS department at Ford Motor Company, Debbie Mielewski leads a team that has been working since 2000 to make plant-based plastics strong enough to compete against conventional ones. Ford initiated the research as concerns rose about the environment and the oil supply.
Still, Mielewski’s research proved a tough sell. “We were told over and over it could not be done,” she says. “We got thrown out of every conference room in the company.”
At one point, Mielewski says, her group had yet to produce any real results pointing to eventual success. It was even proposed that funding for her group’s research be eliminated.
“But Bill Ford stepped in and kept us going,” Mielewski recalls. “He said simply, ‘It’s the right thing to do.’ ”
Then an oil price shock in 2007 helped her team win over converts. “Oil went from $40 to $160 a barrel. And we were ready with soybean foam that met all the requirements for durability and performance.”
Within a year of the oil price spike, Ford’s first eco-hit rolled off production lines: Soy-based foam tucked into the seats of the 2008 Ford Mustang.
Today, even though oil prices have temporarily retreated, Ford has stuck with the material. The foam, a blend of conventional and bio-based oils, is now standard across the company’s product line in North America, and will in time appear in international models. Since the switchover, some 15 million soy-infused Ford vehicles now ply our roads
“The soy-based foam is a cost-effective and durable replacement for petroleum-based foam,” Mielewski says. “And it’s better for the planet.”
FORD ISN’T THE ONLY company hunting for alternative materials. In 2012, Ford joined several companies, including Coca-Cola and Heinz, to form a working group devoted to accelerating the development and use of plant-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) materials in their products.
Heinz processes more than two million tons of tomatoes each year to make its best-selling product: Researchers at Ford and Heinz are investigating how they might turn the byproducts of ketchup production —tomato peels, stems and seeds— into car parts such as wiring brackets and storage bins.
Inspiration from nature is also helping Interface, a maker of modular carpet systems. Executives realized that they could do away with glue to install their carpet tiles, not only making installation faster but also easier to recycle the materials.
Its solution, TacTiles, mimics the peculiarly tenacious grip of geckos — the small lizards that stick effortlessly to walls and ceilings. Inspired by the structure of the geckos’ feet, the company created a backing that adheres while in place but can be reoriented easily. The product contributed to a 91 percent reduction in Interface’s landfill waste.
Back at Ford, Mielewski says her lab is investigating many promising materials, ranging from coconut husks to kenaf, a tropical plant in the cotton family. Even shredded U.S. currency — a durable blend of cotton and linen — could help reinforce tomorrow’s plastic parts.
The notion of American farms providing the raw materials of manufacturing isn’t new. In 1934, Henry Ford said, “Someday you and I will see the day when auto bodies will be grown down on the farm.” Seven years later, he built a prototype of a car with side panels made from soybeans and other crops. The vehicle wasn’t completely organic, but it was reinforced by plant-based material. The mix signaled a future in which manufacturers would produce renewable goods that benefit the environment and help the bottom line.
When World War II all but halted auto production, the push for plant-based plastics fell by the wayside. More than half a century later, Henry Ford’s passion for combining agriculture with the fruits of industry has been reignited at the company that bears his name.
“I think it’s possible to make every single one of the plastic materials on the vehicle greener,” says Mielewski. “It just takes effort and time.”
It’s effort and time that more and more manufacturers are investing in as evidence mounts that bioplastics not only benefit the bottom line, but also extend environmental sustainability far beyond billiard balls and elephants. “It’s totally worth it,” says Mielewski, “because we feel we’re having an impact on the planet.
Read More: The New York Times