Automobiles are among the most recycled commodities, maintaining a recycling rate of nearly 100 percent. But did you every stop to think how much byproducts and recyclable products from the environment itself find themselves in the modern automobile?
As a way to become even more environmentally conscientious, Ford Motor Company continues to develop innovative new ways to incorporate recycled content into its vehicles; and America’s best selling truck is just the latest example.
While F-Series trucks have been utilizing soybeans, as well as recycled cotton, carpet, plastic soda pop and water bottles, and post-industrial plastics, the latest sustainable material being incorporated into production, begining with the 2014 F-150, is rice hull-reinforced plastic.
Rice hulls are a byproduct of rice grain, and for that it’s being used to reinforce plastic in the truck’s electrical harness. Based on the estimated annual production volume of its popular full-size pickup Ford will need at least 20,400 kg of hulls in the first year.
Rice hulls were chosen to reinforce the plastic used on the wiring harness because of an abundance of the material, in which rice farmers didn’t know what to do with it. Using this byproduct is the first automotive application of the rice-hull material, which replaces talc, a silicate material mined from the earth. Not particularly high-end, talc is a type of filler.
Ford says the use of rice hulls is the latest example of Ford researchers and engineers using sustainable material whenever possible in the F-Series, without compromising toughness and durability. So Instead of “Built Ford Tough”, maybe the slogan should read “Built Green Tough” instead.
The rice hulls are sourced from farms in Arkansas and will replace a talc-based reinforcement in a polypropylene composite made by Michigan-based supplier RheTech. Research revealed the hulls are very similar in performance to talc and meet Ford’s performance and durability requirements to a tie. That’s one of company’s mantras that the sustainable material must perform and be as durable as the material it replaces. Other materials currently used by Ford include recycled cotton, carpeting, tires, plastic bottles, post-industrial plastics and soybeans.
For example, each new Ford Fusion has about 39 clear plastic water bottles (partially collected from Ford’s own corporate offices) recycled into its seat covers, 31,250 soybeans in its seat cushions and a couple pairs of denim jeans shredded into a soundproofing material (called “shoddy”).
The Ford Flex has a wheat-straw-reinforced storage bin, part of a plan to expand the use of bio-based materials, using locally-sourced stalks from six Ontario Canada farmers.
Chrysler went a step further for its corporate wide 2010 redesign, with a process that chemically decomposes urethane foam into a base component: polyols. Parts maker Magna then mixes it with virgin materials to reconstitute it as foam for seats and soundproofing. Chrysler says it’s diverting tens of thousands of pounds of foam from landfills.
Using organic byproducts and plants to make plastics is nothing new. Henry Ford unveiled his plastic-bodied prototype vehicle on August 13, 1941, at Dearborn Days, an annual community festival. It was also displayed at the Michigan State Fair Grounds later that year. The frame, made of tubular steel, had 14 plastic panels attached to it. The car weighed 2,000 lbs., 1,000 lbs. lighter than a steel car.
The exact ingredients of the plastic panels are unknown because no record of the formula exists today. One article claims that they were made from a chemical formula that, among many other ingredients, included soybeans, wheat, hemp, flax and ramie (an ancient vegetable fiber); while the man who was instrumental in creating the car, Lowell E. Overly, claims it was “… soybean fiber in a phenolic resin with formaldehyde used in the impregnation”.
Henry Ford first put E.T. (Bob) Gregorie of the Styling Department in charge, but was not satisfied. He then transferred the project to the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village to the care of Lowell E. Overly, whose formal training was in tool and die design. His supervisor, Robert A. Boyer, a chemist, aided him.
Ford had started 20 years prior with a concoction of wheat straw, rubber, silica and other compounds to make steering wheels. There were several reasons why Henry Ford wanted to take this a step further. Among them was that Ford wanted to tie America’s agricultural power (and the produce of his own farm) to its industrial force and to look for alternatives to steel, which was in short supply when World War II was being fought in Europe.
The outbreak of World War II suspended all auto production, and therefore the plastic car experiment. A second unit was in production at the time the war broke out, but the project was abandoned. By the end of the war the idea of a plastic car had fallen through the cracks due to energy being directed toward war recovery efforts. According to Overly, the car was destroyed by E.T. Gregorie, hence the lack of knowledge of the vehicle’s existence hasn’t been widely known.
The current trend is being driven by two forces. First, petroleum-derived plastics and materials are getting more expensive as the price of oil rises. Second, closed-loop systems (which recycle any production waste back into the manufacturing process) cut costs.
The other factor is consumers, who are much more eco-conscious but remain price sensitive.
Manufacturers are working with universities and research centers to create more-sustainable materials – such as the Ontario BioAuto Council and the University of Windsor’s Auto21. The trick is to not just make materials that are environmentally friendly but to also ensure they can be recycled later.
The goal is to help manufacturers make design decisions that will not only pay off in the form of lighter, cheaper and more-sustainable vehicles but will also yield more recyclable or reclaimable parts and materials.
The F-Series trucks already feature the following:
• Recycled cotton: Used as carpet insulation and a sound absorber; every 2014 F-150 contains enough recycled cotton to make the equivalent of 10 pairs of jeans, 26 bath towels or 31 T-shirts
• Soybeans: Used to make seat cushions, seat backs and head restraints (First used on the 2011 Explorer)
• Recycled carpet: Since 2010 Ford has used EcoLon, a nylon resin produced from 100 percent post-consumer recycled carpet, to make cylinder head covers for the 3.0-liter Duratec engine in the Fusion and the Escape, and also on the 5.0-liter engine, which powers the Mustang and the F-150.
• Recycled tires: A thermoplastic material made from recycled tires and post-consumer recycled polypropylene is used to make shields and some underbody covers on F-150
• Recycled plastic soda pop and water bottles: A lightweight fiber derived from recycled plastic soda pop and water bottles is used to construct F-150 wheel liners and shields. The parts are significantly lighter than traditional injection molded parts and lead to a quieter ride. Select F-Series trucks feature fabric made from recycled fiber
• Recycled post-industrial plastics: Used in interior finish panels, including around radio and climate controls
Although FoMoCo is working to make their vehicles more environmentally friendlier, the automaker does not sacrifice toughness or durability. After discovering a new sustainable material that can feasibly be used in one of the vehicles, the material must undergo testing to ensure it performs as well if not better than comparable materials. For example, the new rice hull-reinforced plastic, which was developed by Ford and RheTech, underwent testing for more than a year. Everything from smell, appearance, functionality, and flammability was examined before the material received approval.
It’s obvious that for Ford fuel economy is a top priority, not only to help you save at the pump, but to also improve the automaker’s environmental impact. But, it’s also important to recognize the impact that can be made by incorporating sustainable materials into the production of vehicles. While multiple Ford vehicles utilize an array of eco-friendly materials, the F-Series alone uses about 10 million pounds of recycled cotton annually thanks to the trucks more than 650,000 sales per year! So you can see how the effect can really add up! For the 2014 model year, the Ford F-150 will be “Environmentally Friendly and Tough” as Ford plans to source a minimum of 45,000 pounds of rice hulls from Arkansas for the new reinforced plastic.
“The 2014 F-Series exemplifies our continued efforts to use recycled content in our vehicles,” said John Viera, Ford Motor Company global director of sustainability and vehicle environmental matters, in a news release. “We can have greater impact in this case because of the size and sales volume of this product.”