Since the introduction of the soy-based foam over 10 years ago, we’ve witnessed an amazing migration of bio-technology into automotive production. Now approximately 75 percent of all Ford vehicle headrests have soy in them. Seat cushions typically use 12 percent soy content minimum and the head rest is at 25 percent. Now we’re focused on creating a biodegradable product that uses biomaterials. The soy-based foam cannot biodegrade so it still goes to landfills like the petroleum foam it just replaced.
What are other ways of developing sustainable solutions besides bio-product substitution?
Sometimes finding a sustainable solution is about reducing extraneous pollution, such as reducing the CO2 that’s emitted while shipping auto parts all over the world. We’ve learned that the lifecycle analysis of a product can actually be negative for a biomaterial product because it has to be shipped a long-distance. So, it may look like a ‘green’ solution but it’s worse than the petroleum part you are replacing.
We recently worked with the Ontario BioCar Initiative to help put local resources into automotive applications. For this project we looked at the local landscape and utilize the material that was available in Canada. Some places in the world simply don’t have the ability to grow biofibers, but they can grow wheat. It’s plentiful, inexpensive and a waste product. The result was the first ever 20 percent wheat straw bio-filler reinforced plastic trash bin, which launched in the 2010 Ford Flex.
What are some of the challenges you face designing durable and sustainable composite parts?
There tends to be odor with plant based materials. Some of the odors are pleasant — like wheat — but when it’s hot outside, our customers might not want to smell wheat bread when they get in the car. Another challenge is processing natural fibers without hurting them. We want to push these materials into vehicles but not to a point where the fillers aren’t durable substitutes anymore. They need to at least perform the same as the petroleum substitutes and in some cases even improve performance.
How do you keep track of new bio-products?
We have a new material engineering group that was put together to track every bio-product in our programs. What we found was that the European automotive industry already has requirements for recycled materials, which is way ahead of the U.S. Now that we have that information from the European market, we’re setting standards to meet the ones they’ve set.