Ford Motor Company is teaming up with Jose Cuervo to explore the use of the tequila producer’s blue agave plant fiber byproduct to develop more sustainable bioplastics to employ in Ford vehicles.
Ford and Jose Cuervo are testing the agave-fiber-reinforced bioplastic for use in vehicle interior and exterior components such as wiring harnesses, HVAC units and storage bins. Initial assessments suggest the material holds great promise due to its durability and aesthetic qualities. Success in developing a sustainable composite could reduce vehicle weight and lower energy consumption, while paring the use of petrochemicals and the impact of vehicle production on the environment.
The process entails first putting the agave fiber through a chopper to get the right particle size (less than 3mm) for the extrusion process, which involves mixing the particle fibers with the plastic. Ford is using about 20% fiber to reinforce its plastics.
The mixture is then put through injection molding to shape into the desired part. Ford is currently molding simple parts and testing different geometric shapes in the initial research. So far, the agave material has gone through all of the necessary screening tests (chemical, physical, and odor) to help Ford engineers determine the appropriate applications for the material.
Ford and Jose Cuervo have been collaborating for the past year to source small amounts of agave fibers for the initial research. The next step for this project is to establish a supply chain for agave—specifically blue agave—to scale the development and application of this bioplastic in vehicles. Ford also plans to mold some first, real automotive parts for durability and performance evaluation.
As a leader in the sustainability space, we are developing new technologies to efficiently employ discarded materials and fibers, while potentially reducing the use of petrochemicals and light-weighting our vehicles for desired fuel economy. There are about 400 pounds of plastic on a typical car. Our job is to find the right place for a green composite like this to help our impact on the planet.—Debbie Mielewski, Ford senior technical leader, sustainability research department
Agave is a genus of succulents native to the arid regions of Mexico and the Southwestern US, with more than 200 species. Agave tequilana, commonly called blue agave, is used as the base ingredient of tequila. The high production of sugars in the core of the plant is the main characteristic that makes it suitable for the preparation of alcoholic beverages; it use as a biofuel feedstock has also been explored.
The growth cycle of the agave plant is a minimum seven-year process. Once harvested, the heart of the plant is roasted, before grinding and extracting its juices for distillation. The leaves are left as bagasse after harvesting the heads for tequila production.
The leaves are 90–120 cm long and 8–12 cm wide and contain fiber bundles that are 23–52 cm long and 0.6–13 mm wide. The ultimate fiber length is approximately 1.6 mm with an average width of 25 μm. There are several types of leaf fibers that can be utilized depending on what part of the plant they come from and what product is desired. (Iñiguez-Covarrubias et al.)
Jose Cuervo uses a portion of the agave fibers as compost for its farms, and local artisans make crafts and agave paper from the remnants.
The collaboration with Jose Cuervo is the latest example of Ford’s innovative approach to product and environmental stewardship through the use of biomaterials. Ford began researching the use of sustainable materials in its vehicles in 2000 and uses a number of them, including:
Kenaf, a tropical plant in the cotton family, is used in the door bolsters of Ford Escape.
REPREVE fabric, made from recycled plastic bottles, diverts more than 5 million plastic bottles from landfill annually. Ford most recently introduced REPREVE in F-150.
Post-consumer cotton from denim and T-shirts is used as interior padding and sound insulation in most Ford vehicles.
EcoLon post-consumer nylon carpeting is used as cylinder head covers in Ford Escape, Fusion, Mustang and F-150.
Recycled plastic bottles are becoming floor carpeting, wheel liners and shields in several vehicles including Ford Transit and C-MAX.
Recycled post-consumer tires are used in seals and gaskets
Rice hulls are used to reinforce plastic in Ford F-150 electrical harness.
Soy-based foams are used as seat cushions, seatbacks and head restraints in Ford’s North American vehicle lineup.
Wheat straw is used in Ford Flex to reinforce storage bins.
Cellulose tree fibers are used in the armrest of Lincoln MKX. Used to replace glass-filled plastic, this industry-first material weighs 10 percent less, is produced 30 percent faster, and reduces carbon emissions.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, 5 billion metric tons of agricultural biomass waste is produced annually. A byproduct of agriculture, the supply of materials is abundant and often underutilized. Yet the materials can be relatively low cost, and can help manufacturers to offset the use of glass fibers and talc for more sustainable, lightweight products.
G. Iñiguez-Covarrubias, R. Díaz-Teres, R. Sanjuan-Dueñas, J. Anzaldo-Hernández, Roger M. Rowell (2001) “Utilization of by-products from the tequila industry. Part 2: potential value of Agave tequilana Weber azul leaves,” Bioresource Technology, Volume 77, Issue 2, Pages 101-108 doi: 10.1016/S0960-8524(00)00167-X