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Renewable Materials

We continue to use more plant-based materials to reduce our carbon footprint and our dependence on petroleum.

Someday, you and I will see the day when auto bodies will be grown down on the farm.”

Henry Ford

Henry Ford, 1934

The environmental, economic and performance benefits of durable, plant-based materials include reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, vehicle weight and fuel consumption; lower manufacturing energy use and costs; reduced use of petroleum and non-sustainable resources; diverting waste from landfill; and the creation of new markets and revenue opportunities for farmers.

Why Renewable Materials Matter to Ford

Around 8 percent of all the petroleum oil used in the world each year goes to making plastic. Once used, up to half of all plastic is dumped into landfills. Much of the rest is burned, and millions of tons are dumped into our oceans; relatively little is recycled. In response to the ocean waste problem, our research team has recently initiated an effort to investigate automotive uses for ocean plastic.

Driven by concerns around cost, supply and environmental protection, Ford scientists are researching ways to replace petroleum oil as the main ingredient in plastic. We began researching the use of sustainable materials to rival and replace petroleum-based plastics in our vehicles in 2000. Having introduced the industry’s first soy-based foam in seat cushions and seat backs in 2006, our renewable materials program has now expanded to include a number of different renewable material applications, all of which meet strict performance and durability specifications.

We have implemented many world- and industry-first renewable materials, including wheat-straw storage bins, rice hull wiring harnesses and tree-based cellulose. These materials are lighter in weight, meet all durability and performance requirements, and provide new revenue streams for North American farmers. We have achieved all this while lowering GHG emissions and reducing petroleum consumption.

Watch a video about Ford’s renewable materials program.

From Bluejeans to Rice Hulls

See the recycled and bio-based materials used on the new F-150.

Underbody cover

Contains recycled rubber from post-consumer tires and polypropylene

Fuel lines

Contain castor oil-based nylon

Seat backs, cushions and head restraints

Use soy-based polyurethane foam

Exterior mirror gaskets

Contain post-consumer recycled tires and soybean oil

Sound insulation

Padding made from recycled cotton and bluejean production scrap

Truck body

All the weight-saving aluminum used is recyclable

Wiring harness

Made using rice hulls

Our Current Technology

Coconut fibers are used in the trunk liners of the Ford Focus Electric.

Seat cushions, storage bins and door panels are just a few of the many items we make with renewable materials.

We’re working on making sustainable car parts out of tomato peel and other by-products from the farm.

Scientists at our research centers in the U.S., Germany, China and Brazil are developing foams, plastics and composites derived from renewable resources for use in millions of vehicles every year.

In our North American vehicles, all seat cushions, backs and headrests contain soy foam. Castor oil is used in all vehicles for fuel lines and in several vehicles for instrument panel foam. We are also developing applications that use locally sourced and plentiful plant oils – such as soy oil in the U.S., mustard seed oil in Canada, castor oil in tropical regions, and palm oil in Asia, Africa and South America – in instrument panels, seals and gaskets.

We use renewable, plant-based natural fibers to reinforce plastic in our vehicles:

  • Cellulose-reinforced plastic, using fibers from sustainably grown trees, has been used to replace fiberglass in center console armrests
  • Wheat-straw-reinforced plastic is used in storage bins
  • Kenaf, a tropical plant, is used in compression-molded plastic door parts
  • Rice hulls are used to reinforce electrical brackets

We are also looking at ways to utilize other waste streams and by-products, such as recycled tires, recycled T-shirts and denim, recycled plastic bottles and even shredded U.S. currency. Ford researchers in Asia Pacific recently announced their work to reinforce plastics with bamboo fiber, which is strong, plentiful and aesthetically pleasing.

Meanwhile, Dearborn researchers are focused on agave fiber, grown for tequila production in Mexico (see below). This fiber is exceedingly tough and available in large quantities locally. Instead of burning the fiber, utilizing it as a plastics reinforcement will reduce CO2 emissions, improve fuel economy and provide farmers with additional revenue.

Case Study

Agave By-Products Get a Second Chance

In tequila production, once the heart of the agave plant is harvested and roasted, and its juices extracted for distillation, a portion of the remaining fibers can be used as compost for local farms, or used by local artisans to make crafts. However, there is a huge surplus of fiber, and much of it is burned in the field, producing greenhouse gas. Now, as part of a broader sustainability plan, Jose Cuervo® has joined forces with Ford to develop a new way to use its remnant fibers.

Together, we’re exploring the use of its by-products to develop sustainable bioplastics for our vehicles, and testing them for use in components such as wiring harnesses, heating and air-conditioning units, and storage bins.

Initial assessments highlight the potential for success, given the composite’s durability and aesthetic qualities. It could reduce vehicle weight and improve fuel economy, while reducing our reliance on petrochemical-based plastics.

There are about 400 pounds of plastic on a typical car. Our job is to optimize the material properties of a natural fiber composite such as agave, and then find the appropriate place for it on our vehicles. This will help Ford to reduce our impact on the planet. It is work that we’re really proud of, and it could certainly have broad impact across numerous industries.”

Debbie Mielewski,Senior Technical Leader, Sustainable Materials Research, Ford Motor Company

See the route agave takes to get a second life in a Ford vehicle.

Our Research Partnerships

We continue to research renewable materials and potential applications at our research centers around the world, and through partnerships with suppliers and nonautomotive partners.

Along with Coca-Cola, Nike and Procter & Gamble, we co-founded the plant-based PET Technology Collaborative (PTC), a strategic working group focused on accelerating the development and use of 100 percent plant-based PET materials and fibers. Collaborations with these companies to further our sustainability efforts include:

  • The first automotive use of Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle plastic, used in the seat fabric, trim, carpets and headliner in a Focus battery electric demonstration vehicle
  • Partnering with Procter & Gamble to use biomimicry, inspired by nature’s solutions, to solve some of the most challenging material issues facing our industries

We are also part of WWF’s Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance (BFA), working to support the responsible development of plastics made from plant material, and helping build a more sustainable future for the bioplastics industry.

And we were excited about recent laboratory success in generating polyurethane foams that meet general durability and performance requirements, which utilize CO2 as a feedstock.

  See how we’re sequestering excess CO2 to make durable plastics and foams for use in our vehicles