Ford is the first automaker to develop and implement environmentally-friendly wheat straw-reinforced plastic in a vehicle. Before you get carried away, the car itself, a Ford Flex, isn’t made of plastic, instead, it’s just the third-row interior storage bins made from the natural fiber-based plastic that contains 20 percent wheat straw bio-filler. Surprisingly though, Ford says this application alone reduces petroleum usage by some 20,000lbs per year, cuts CO2 emissions by 30,000lbs per year, and represents a smart, sustainable usage for wheat straw, the waste byproduct of wheat.

"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."

Collaborative effort

The wheat straw-based plastics was formulated 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. The group approached Ford researchers, who work closely with the Ontario government-funded project.

The University of Waterloo already had been working with a plastics supplier in Ohio to perfect the lab formula for use in auto parts to ensure the material met industry standards for thermal expansion and degradation, rigidity, moisture absorption and fogging, and importantly, that it was odorless.

In less than 18 months after the initial presentation was made to Ford's Biomaterials Group, the wheat straw-reinforced plastic will soon be appearing in 2010 Flex vehicles, which are produced at Ford's Oakville (Ontario) Assembly Complex.

Advantages

As BioCar Initiative's first production-ready application, wheat straw-reinforced resin has many advantages over non-reinforced plastic. It has better dimensional integrity than a non-reinforced plastic and weighs up to 10 percent less than a plastic reinforced with talc or glass.

Dr Ellen Lee, technical expert, Ford's Plastics Research said that an interior storage bin may seem like a small start, but it opened the door for more applications.

"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."

Ford is also considering center console bins and trays, interior air register and door trim panel components, and armrest liners to be made from the wheat straw-based plastic.

Waste not, want not

There’s certainly no shortage of wheat straw locally where the Flex is built. In Ontario alone, 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 a massive 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.

Ford is also considering center console bins and trays, interior air register and door trim panel components, and armrest liners made from the plastic.

Other recycled materials in Ford vehicles

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.

The company's other bio-based, reclaimed and recycled materials that are in Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles today, include:

  • Soy-based polyurethane foams on the seat cushions and seatbacks.
  • Underbody systems, such as aerodynamic shields, splash shields and radiator air deflector shields, made from post-consumer recycled resins such as detergent bottles, tires and battery casings, diverting between 25 and 30 million pounds of plastic from landfills. The newest addition is the engine cam cover on the 3.0-liter V-6 2010 Ford Escape.
  • 100 percent post-industrial recycled yarns in seat fabrics on vehicles such as the Ford Escape.
  • Repurposed nylon carpeting made into nylon resin and molded into cylinder head covers for Ford's 3.0L Duratec engine. The industry's first eco-friendly cylinder head cover is currently found in the 2010 Ford Fusion and Escape vehicles.