Ford and Weyerhauser collaborating on plastic composites using cellulose fibers from trees
27 September 2012
The Ford biomaterials research team has been collaborating for the last three years with forest products leader Weyerhaeuser to investigate the use of a plastic composite material utilizing cellulose fibers from trees in place of fiberglass or mineral reinforcements.
Because the cellulose fibers in this new composite come from sustainably grown and harvested trees and related byproducts, such as chips, the environmental impact of building cars could be lessened by replacing fiberglass, minerals and/or petroleum with a natural, plant-based material.
Ford’s research has found that Weyerhaeuser’s cellulose-based plastic composite materials meet the automaker’s stringent requirements for stiffness, durability and temperature resistance. Further, components weigh about 10% less and can be produced 20 to 40% faster and with less energy when made with cellulose-based materials compared with fiberglass-based materials. These weight and process savings can enable equivalent or reduced component costs.
Like other less-than-obvious candidates for use in vehicle components, such as retired and shredded paper currency, the cellulose-based plastic composite material could be as important to Ford as soybeans have become. Ford uses soybean-based cushions in all of its North American vehicles such as the all-new Fusion, saving about 5 million pounds of petroleum annually.
Several prototype vehicle components were created from the cellulose-based material and put through a testing by a team led by Dr. Ellen Lee, Ford’s plastic research technical expert.
We found that working collaboratively at an early stage has accelerated the development of a material that has a high thermal stability, doesn’t discolor and doesn’t have an odor. That’s important because it opens the door for use of the material in a wide range of applications that could eventually add up to significant environmental benefits across our product line.—Ellen Lee
For example, prototype armrests were tested as potential components that could feature the cellulose-based material.
Not only can the cellulose material be used in interior applications, but the high level of performance provided by the cellulose fibers also makes it a good candidate for exterior and under-the-hood applications as well.
Ford vehicles feature a number of different renewable and recycled materials:
The new Fusion uses the equivalent of about 42 recycled plastic bottles in its seat fabric and post-consumer recycled carpet in its cylinder head covers;
Ford’s entire North American lineup of vehicles contain soybean-based cushions and head restraints;
Flex has wheat straw in its plastic bins;
Kenaf fiber— derived from a plant related to cotton and okra— is used in the door bolsters of Escape;
Focus Electric uses a wood-fiber-based material in its doors and recycled plastic bottles in its seat fabric;
The new Fusion contains the equivalent of slightly more than two pairs of average-sized American blue jeans as sound-dampening material;and
The equivalent of 25 recycled 20-ounce plastic bottles help make up the Escape’s carpet.
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