The Ford Motor Company, as part of its evolving commitment to make its products environmentally friendly over the entire life and operation of the vehicle, is conducting experiments with plastics that are both bio-based and biodegradable. The end goal is to produce interior parts that will essentially dissolve when their working lives have come to an end Speaking at the Ward's Auto Interiors Show in June, the technical leader of the company's materials research and advanced engineering department admitted the goal is both difficult and long-term one.
As quoted by Auto News, Deborah Mielewski said, "It's the big project. Before I retire, I want to reach the point where we stop making automotive plastics that are thrown into the landfill and last forever." Last year Ford began to implement a urethane foam blend based on soybeans first used in the Mustang and now present in half a dozen other models. While much of the media emphasis is on lower emissions and greater fuel efficiency, vehicles can continue to pollute the environment for decades as they slowly decay in junkyards and garbage dumps all over the world.
Mielewski's team is currently looking at a range of futuristic materials with unique applications. For instance, one project explores uses for polymers with shape memory that have the ability to reform to a preset configuration at certain temperature points. Other research looks at the potential for the replacement of glass with natural structural materials including kenaf, hemp, or jute. A major goal is the development of the flexible resin PLA, or corn-based polyactic acid, to be used in the replacement of conventional plastics. By combining the PLA with natural fibers, the resulting product can be totally composted. PLA is a highly versatile compound that can be produced as sheets or molded by either injection or blowing. Currently it's used to produce biodegradable coffee cups.
The work underway at Ford is not, however, without its hurdles. At its current level of evolution PLA breaks down in 120 days making it unfit for automotive applications. Additionally, molding the material is not cost efficient in terms of time. Minutes rather than seconds are required. In addition to engineering better PLA, another potential answer to these conundrums lies in the increased use of Mucell technology that reduces how much resin is actually needed in each part. The method uses air bubbles on the microscopic level to boost plastic's structural performance. In addition to this work, Ford is also conducting experiments with natural fibers like coconut coir and rice hulls. "It's not that it can't be done," said Mielewski, "it's just that it's not easy." This is not, however, deterring Ford from taking a leading role in fabricating the automotive materials of the future.