Coconuts in cargo mats? Storage bins made of wheat? Car seats cushioned with soy beans? Tires made of desert shrubs? It's no joke. It's reality.
Many auto manufacturers are driving a drastic shift toward agri-environmental design. Plant-based materials are being used in vehicles, on everything from tires to plastic storage bins. It's innovative – and the aim is to reduce dependency on foreign petroleum, improve the environment and increase revenues for farmers.
"It's better for the environment whenever you use a plant-based material," says Debbie Mielewski, senior technical leader of materials sustainability at Ford's Research and Innovation Centre in Dearborn, Mich. "These materials truly are lower greenhouse gas emissions than the petroleum which we're replacing.
"Every time we implement a plant-based material, it's that much better for the planet."
Ford was the first auto manufacturer to introduce soy foam, in the 2008 Mustang. Soy foam comes from oil extracted from soybeans grown in the United States and nearly five million pounds of soybean oil are used annually to make it. It's in seat cushions, seat backs and head rests of every North American Ford vehicle – and each one contains exactly 31,251 soybeans. The environmental benefits are big: soybean-based cushions have reduced petroleum production by five million pounds annually and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 25 million pounds annually.
The Canadian-made Ford Flex takes agri-environmental auto design one step further, using wheat straw in its third-row storage bin. The wheat comes from six to eight farms in southern Ontario. Wheat straw, a by-product of growing wheat, is discarded, typically landfilled or burned. But Ford has found a way to use it to fortify the plastic bin in the Flex. It's an idea that originated at the University of Waterloo as part of Ontario's government-funded BioCar initiative, a joint partnership between four Canadian universities, the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, and 12 private-sector partners.
After the food portion is harvested, wheat straw is ground, dried and compounded into a composite material, which contains 20 per cent wheat straw mixed with polypropylene. Then, it's injection-moulded into the bin, assembled with other components and installed in the Flex at Ford's manufacturing plant in Oakville, Ont. More than half-a-pound of wheat straw goes into each vehicle.
"You're providing revenue to a farmer who didn't even expect to sell wheat straw for anything," Mielewski says. "He grows it for the food portion. We're able to use the fibres in very high-end, durable applications."
But it's not only Ford using food to create plastics. Toyota uses an eco-plastic made from sugar cane and corn in its Prius; the BMW i3 has kenaf fibres in its door panels, and Bridgestone is testing applications for plants in its next-generation tires.
Bridgestone's Biorubber Process Research Centre is making tire-grade natural rubber from a woody desert shrub called guayule, grown largely in southwestern United States. Bridgestone is growing and harvesting the plants at a 281-acre research farm in Eloy, Ariz. Machines then grind and mill the shrub into small particles and crush the cell walls to expose its natural rubber content. It's almost identical to the rubber produced in hevea rubber trees grown in Asia, where more than 90 per cent of the world's natural rubber supply comes from. The economic implications of the Bridgestone experiment could one day be far reaching.
Auto makers are also working on other auto applications for Canadian agricultural products – including oat hulls, flax, mustard-seed oil and grapeseed oil.
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