In Michigan, Ford Motor’s use of bioplastics in vehicles is set to grow despite technical hurdles and low oil prices. Debbie Mielewski Ford’s senior technical leader of sustainable materials, tells TriplePundit how the carmaker has overcome a number of the sourcing and performance challenges that have arisen. For example, fibers can contain impurities that cause odor if the material is heated, causing Ford to limit materials based on agave to under the hood. In some cases, as with cellulose fibers from trees, the automaker was able to remove impurities that prevented the material from withstanding high temperatures.
Ford also makes an effort to source local materials wherever possible. Mielewski says the company uses wheat straw from local farms in Ontario, Canada in the storage bins for the Ford Flex it manufactures nearby. The recently announced partnership with tequila maker Jose Cuervo to use agave fibers will be particularly “relevant” to the company’s Mexico manufacturing.
Incorporating natural fibers has a number of benefits beyond sustainability, including lightweighting the vehicle and increased strength for certain car components. However, with oil prices so low virgin plastics are often cheaper. “You’ll have to have reasonably high oil prices and plastic prices to get people motivated in these technical areas,” Mielewski says. Nonetheless, Ford will continue to use sustainable materials where they meet performance requirement and are affordable.