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The number of car manufacturers using natural fibres to make interior trim is constantly rising. Toyota, Mercedes, BMW, Peugeot and Ford, to name a few, offer several models integrating natural fibre composites which are certainly concealed but ever-present. European, American and Japanese recycling regulations are partially responsible for this growing use.
(Published on February-March 2010 – JEC Magazine #55)
The Ford Motor Company is the first automaker to develop and use an environmentally-friendly wheat strawreinforced plastic in a vehicle. This was achieved by working together with academic researchers and one of its suppliers,. The first application of the natural fibre-based plastic – containing 20% wheat straw bio-filler – is on the 2010 Ford Flex's third-row interior storage bins. This application alone reduces petroleum usage by some 9 metric tons (MT) per year and CO2 emissions by 13.5 MT per year. It represents a smart, sustainable usage for wheat straw, the waste by-product of wheat.
"Ford continues to explore and open doors for greener materials that positively impact the environment and work well for customers," said Patrick Berryman, a Ford engineering manager who develops interior trim. "We seized the opportunity to add wheat straw-reinforced plastic as our next sustainable material on the production line, and the storage bin for the Flex was the ideal first application."
Ford researchers were approached with the wheat straw-based plastic formulation by the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, as part of the Ontario BioCar Initiative – a multiuniversity effort between Waterloo, the University of Guelph, University of Toronto and University of Windsor. Ford works closely with the Ontario governmentfunded project, which is seeking to advance the use of more plant-based materials in the auto and agricultural industries.
The University of Waterloo had already been working with plastics supplier A. Schulman of Akron, Ohio, to perfect the lab formula for use in auto parts, ensuring the material is not only odourless, but also meets industry standards for thermal expansion and degradation, rigidity, moisture absorption and fogging. Less than 18 months after the initial presentation was made to Ford's Biomaterials Group, the wheat straw-reinforced plastic was refined and approved for Flex, which is produced at Ford's Oakville (Ontario) Assembly Complex. The wheat straw-reinforced resin is the BioCar Initiative's first production-ready application. It demonstrates better dimensional integrity than a non-reinforced plastic and weighs up to 10% less than a plastic reinforced with talc or glass. "Without Ford's driving force and contribution, we would have never been able to move from academia to industry with such lightning speed," said Leonardo Simon, Associate Professor of chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo. "Seeing this go into production on the Ford Flex is a major accomplishment for the University of Waterloo and the BioCar Initiative."“An interior storage bin may seem like a small start, but it opens the door to more applications”, said Dr. Ellen Lee, technical expert, Ford's Plastics Research. "We see a great deal of potential for other applications since wheat straw has good mechanical properties, can meet our performance and durability specifications, and can further reduce our carbon footprint – all without compromise to the customer."
Already under consideration by the Ford team are centre console bins and trays, interior air register and door trim panel components, and armrest liners.
Abundant waste material put to good use
The case for using wheat straw to reinforce plastics in higher-volume, higher-content applications is strong across many industries. In Ontario alone where Flex is built, more than 28,000 farmers grow wheat, along with corn and soybeans. Wheat straw, the byproduct of growing and processing wheat, is generally discarded. Ontario, for example, has some 30 million MT of available wheat straw waste at any given time.
To date, Ford and its suppliers are working with four southern Ontario farmers for the wheat straw needed to mould the Flex's two interior storage bins.
More information: www.ford.com