Cellulose has joined the growing list of sustainable materials originating from unlikely sources that could soon be used in Ford vehicle components. The Ford biomaterials research team has been working 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. Specifically, replacing fiberglass, minerals and/or petroleum with a natural, plant-based material can sequester CO2 and ultimately lead to a smaller carbon footprint, among other benefits.
“Our responsibility to the customer is to increase our use of more sustainable materials in the right applications that benefit both the environment and product performance,” said John Viera, Ford global director of Sustainability and Environmental matters.
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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 percent less and can be produced 20 to 40 percent 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.
And 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.
The two companies started working together about three years ago to evaluate the use of a cellulose-based plastic composite material for potential use in vehicle components. Several prototype vehicle components were created from the cellulose-based material and put through a battery of tests 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,” said Lee. “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.”
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.
“Cellulose fiber is a great renewable resource that already has established infrastructure around the world, making it an ideal material for Ford’s global products,” said Lee.