Small changes can make a huge difference. Consider a plastic storage bin. By using wheat straw-reinforced plastic rather than 100-percent traditional petroleum products, it is estimated that petroleum use will be reduced by approximately 20,000 and CO2 emissions will be reduced by approximately 30,000 pounds per year.
The first Ford application of the natural fiber-based plastic that contains 20 percent wheat straw bio-filler is on the 2010 Ford Flex’s third-row interior storage bins. Ford is already considering using the environmentally-friendly technology in the construction of center-console bins and trays, interior air registers, door trim panel components and armrest liners.
Ford’s sustainable materials portfolio also includes soy-based polyurethane seat cushions, seatbacks and headliners; post-industrial recycled yarns for seat fabrics; and post-consumer recycled resins for underbody systems, such as the new engine cam cover on the 2010 Ford Escape’s 3.0-liter V6.
“Ford continues to explore and open doors for greener materials that positively impact the environment and work well for customers,” said Patrick Berryman, a Ford engineering manager who develops interior trim. “We seized the opportunity to add wheat straw-reinforced plastic as our next sustainable material on the production line, and the storage bin for the Flex was the ideal first application.”
Ford researchers were approached with the wheat straw-based plastics formulation by the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, as part of the Ontario BioCar Initiative – a multi-university effort between Waterloo, the University of Guelph, University of Toronto and University of Windsor. Ford works closely with the Ontario government-funded project, which is seeking to advance the use of more plant-based materials in the auto and agricultural industries.
The University of Waterloo already had been working with plastics supplier A. Schulman of Akron, Ohio, to perfect the lab formula for use in auto parts, ensuring the material is not only odorless, but also meets industry standards for thermal expansion and degradation, rigidity, moisture absorption and fogging. Less than 18 months after the initial presentation was made to Ford’s Biomaterials Group, the wheat straw-reinforced plastic was refined and approved for Flex, which is produced at Ford’s Oakville (Ontario) Assembly Complex.
The wheat straw-reinforced resin is the BioCar Initiative’s first production-ready application. It demonstrates better dimensional integrity than a non-reinforced plastic and weighs up to 10 percent less than a plastic reinforced with talc or glass.
“Without Ford’s driving force and contribution, we would have never been able to move from academia to industry in such lightning speed,” said Leonardo Simon, associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo. “Seeing this go into production on the Ford Flex is a major accomplishment for the University of Waterloo and the BioCar Initiative.”
An interior storage bin may seem like a small start, but it opens the door for more applications, said Dr. Ellen Lee, technical expert, Ford’s Plastics Research.
“We see a great deal of potential for other applications since wheat straw has good mechanical properties, can meet our performance and durability specifications, and can further reduce our carbon footprint – all without compromise to the customer.”
Abundant waste material put to good use
The case for using wheat straw to reinforce plastics in higher-volume, higher-content applications is strong across many industries. In Ontario alone, where Flex is built, more than 28,000 farmers grow wheat, along with corn and soybeans. Typically, wheat straw, the byproduct of growing and processing wheat, is discarded. Ontario, for example, has some 30 million metric tons of available wheat straw waste at any given time.
“Wheat is everywhere and the straw is in excess,” said Lee. “We have found a practical automotive usage for a renewable resource that helps reduce our dependence on petroleum, uses less energy to manufacture, and reduces our carbon footprint. More importantly, it doesn’t jeopardize an essential food source.”
To date, Ford and its suppliers are working with four southern Ontario farmers for the wheat straw needed to mold the Flex’s two interior storage bins.
History in the making
Ford’s interest in wheat dates back to the 1920s, when company founder Henry Ford developed a product called Fordite – a mixture of wheat straw, rubber, sulphur, silica and other ingredients – that was used to make steering wheels for Ford cars and trucks. Much of the straw used to produce Fordite came from Henry Ford’s Dearborn-area farm.
The company’s new-age application for wheat straw joins other bio-based, reclaimed and recycled materials that are in Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles today, including:
About the Ontario BioCar Initiative
The Ontario BioCar Initiative represents a partnership between the automotive industry and the public sector, aimed at accelerating the use of biomass in automotive materials. For additional information, please visit www.bioproductsatguelph.ca/biocar/.