We’ve seen bamboo in countless forms over the years. It’s a great material for hardwood floors; we’ve chopped, cooked and served with it in the form of cutting boards and utensils; and, of course, many of us have dined on it when we had that late-night urge for takeout Chinese food. We can plant it to block out those annoying neighbors. And in Chinese cities such as Hong Kong, bamboo scaffolding is a common sight.
Now Ford Motors is tinkering with the idea of using bamboo as a raw material. The company’s Asia-Pacific division says it is working with suppliers to evaluate the viability of bamboo for both upholstery and plastic car parts.
Ford’s research team concluded that bamboo performs much better than other natural and synthetic fibers whether it is subjected to extreme heat, as well as in impact and tensile strength tests. Most of Ford’s research on bamboo products is happening at the company’s research and engineering center in Nanjing, China – right in the middle of a region rich in both bamboo and biomass waste from agriculture.
So, could the automaker’s work mean more bamboo will soon appear in automobiles made by Ford and its competitors? After all, bamboo is finding its way into more building materials, such as in composites for fence and deck panels. Plenty of scientific studies show that whether it is engineered or blended with other materials, bamboo maintains its strength and flexibility in even the most extreme conditions. And unlike wood or other plant fibers, bamboo regenerates quickly, with some varietals growing as quickly as several inches in a day. But as any novice gardener or landscaper knows, bamboo can become invasive quickly and can overtake natural habitats such as rain forests in very little time.
Ford has been experimenting with alternative materials and design processes for several years. Some of these raw materials ended up in various automobiles, including soy foam in seat cushions, kenaf leaves in door bolsters, recycled denim layered under carpeting, and Repreve-branded fabric made from recycled bottles for seat coverings. Earlier this year, the company announced that adjustable cargo shelves in its EcoSport SUV incorporated a design inspired by bee honeycomb. And agave plant byproducts from Jose Cuervo’s tequila distilling operations could end up as bioplastic components in future Ford vehicles.
In addition to using more sustainable materials, Ford insists it is accelerating its recycling efforts. While the vast majority of an automobile’s materials are recyclable, there are always some pesky challenges, such as adhesives. On that point, Ford has explored the possibility of recreating the gecko’s sticky toe pads in order to reduce the amount of glues and foams it uses during its manufacturing processes.
We are far away from the time when automakers can say they are part of the emerging circular economy, but the quest by Ford and its competitors to use more responsible materials signals the industry may be changing its stodgy ways.
Image credit: Ford Motor Co.