In 1940, Henry Ford took an axe to his soy-composite automobile trunk lid to demonstrate its strength. More than 70 years later, “bio-fiber is still on the fringe” of the industry, says Jeffrey Helms, global automotive director for Ticona Engineering Polymers, in Auburn Hills, Mich. “You see some bio-fiber composites as part of a sustainability strategy, but you don’t get the same kind of structural performance.” A doable application would be in “decorative-type pieces,” says Helms.

The industry continues to improve fiber-based composites, says Andrew Hopkins, Executive Vice President of RheTech, Inc., in Whitmore Lake, Mich. However, both economic viability and public perception must be addressed, he says. “This is a good step — a good environmental story. We’re getting better at it. We’re getting the right property sets out of it. The challenge is in the economics.”

Jim Cederstrom, automotive business development manager, for Bulk Molding Compounds, Inc., in West Chicago, Ill., points to a growing interest in renewable resin manufacturing, using soy-based resins. “There are more and more green conversations,” he says. “It is less a priority behind costs, weight and performance, as green is slightly more expensive.” His company, also a player in the food industry, sees more interest in sustainability in that market segment than in automotive composites.

Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center in North Canton, Ohio has worked with Detroit’s Big Three in the past, says John Hickman, vice president of programs at the center, which was established in 2005 with an $11.5 million grant through the state of Ohio’s Third Frontier Program. The center’s technology-based economic development initiative helps manufacturers take an idea for a bio-fiber product and commercialize it up to the point of distribution. Hickman says one Ohio business is compounding natural fiber with 20 percent polypropylene material. “Instead of glass fibers, they are using a natural fiber. It’s in the post start-up mode,” he says.

“The pursuit of complete sustainability is difficult, but partial attainment is possible. We have clients asking us to work with natural fiber,” says Hickman. “We have materials right now — today — that they can substitute that have reasonable performance. General Motors is pushing hard to get some sustainability, but it’s got to be a cost proposition. Ford is leading the pack in sustainability in what it’s doing.”

Ashland Chemical Company’s environmental resins are used in John Deere tractors, says Hickman, and the chemical company has expanded its Envirez resin range, that has a bio content ranging from 13 to 22 percent, says Hickman. An interim step to more bio-based composites would be a natural fiber that meets impact requirements inside the car, Hickman says. “The next step is a totally sustainable plastic resin polyprophylene, and we’re not there yet, but it’s the most common resin there is. That’s where a lot of the changes are being made.”