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Ford continues to explore & open doors for greener materials
Nov '09
Ford Motor Company, working with academic researchers and one of its suppliers, is the first automaker to develop and use environmentally friendly wheat straw-reinforced plastic in a vehicle.

The first 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. This application alone reduces petroleum usage by some 20,000 pounds per year, reduces CO2 emissions by 30,000 pounds 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

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."

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