As the cost of raw materials and of course, fossil fuels, continue their upward trajectory, companies will have to become more creative and find new ways to make the products to which their customers have become accustomed. That includes automakers, of course. After decades of resisting fuel mileage standards and considering a future post-ICE (internal combustion engine), things are changing in Detroit. Too slowly for electric car mavens, but, yes, the Big 3, including Ford Motor, are joining the 21st century.
If lighter, stronger, and yes, more sustainable cars will become the norm, we will need more scientists and thinkers like Angela Harris. Harris, a biomaterials research engineer who started at Ford in 2003, is among the many scientists at Ford who are testing new materials that could end up in cars in the very near future. Last week at Ford’s Go Further Trends Conference in Dearborn, I had the chance to meet Harris and check out some of the edible, and not-so edible materials in the works for a long while that are, and will, find their way into more of Ford’s automobiles. They include:
Coconuts: Coconut palms grow like a weed and of course their husks are strong and sturdy. A byproduct of coconut processing, coir is on Ford’s radar as a potential reinforcement material for molded plastics. The end result, which has an earthy textured appearance, could look cool on a dashboard, too.
Soybeans: Soy cushioning is already finding its way into seat cushions, a process that has been 10 years in the making. The first prototypes were hardly successful, breaking down quickly with manky and smelly results. Currently the amount of soy used in Ford’s products saves about 5 million pounds of petroleum annually.
Kenaf: This tropical relative of the cotton plant already forms door bolsters in the latest Ford Escape models. Current testing involves the molding of battery trays.
Denim: Textiles are one of the peskiest and most toxic materials that enter our waste stream, but denim can find a new life in Ford cars. Old jeans when shredded become carpet padding and sound muffler all in one.
Retired currency: All that old paper money has got to go somewhere. This strong and resilient fiber is currently undergoing testing as a component in plastic parts such as trays and bins.
The innovative use and reuse are exciting, but so is the brainpower that is invested in finding new solutions beyond the use of conventional materials. What is especially inspiring about the work of Harris, whose hands are involved in the research and development of all these fibers, is her work motivating youth to enter the world of science. When she is not testing out bio-resins, new composites and polymers, she works with the Society of Women Engineers to encourage students to become engineers. As consumers demand more sustainable products and companies respond in kind, it is the work of scientists like Harris who are making a huge difference.
Photos courtesy Leon Kaye.
Disclosure: Ford Motor covered Leon Kaye’s expenses for visiting Dearborn last week.