The automobile industry is changing, as evident in the rise of electric cars from just about all brands, despite low oil prices. Ford Motor Co. is one example of big automakers’ transformation from once-stodgy manufactures that were resistant to change into agile technology and lifestyle companies. But this change in the automotive sector is not just about moving from conventional gasoline or diesel engines to electric power trains. These companies have very complicated supply chains, and Ford is one company looking beyond alloys and plastics as it figures out how to assemble these next generations of automobiles.
To that end, the Dearborn, Michigan-based company announced it will soon use captured carbon dioxide to make some of the foam and plastic required for its vehicles.
Ford says it is the first company to develop and make components using CO2 as a feedstock for materials such as plastic. Ford worked with East Coast company Novomer to develop these carbon dioxide-based polyols — alcohols that comprise polymers, which are the base of synthetic materials such as polystyrene. The Novomer polyols, branded as Converge, could end up in Ford’s vehicles within five years.
As of now, the foam Ford and Novomer researchers are developing is 50 percent CO2-based. But even if the end products remain half captured carbon and half conventional base materials, that is still a massive step. Assuming that the production of these materials can scale, Ford claims it could reduce its petroleum consumption by as much as 2 million barrels annually.
While environmental groups have long pressed automakers such as Ford to improve their cars’ fuel efficiency, the manufacture of automobiles remains highly carbon-intensive. Auto manufacturers are aware that more consumers want recycled and bio-based products in their vehicles, but of course, the convergence of performance and liability behooves these companies to ensure that sustainable materials can also last for the length of these vehicles’ lives, from when they roll out of the dealership to dismemberment in the junkyard.
Ford (and its competitor, General Motors) is active on this front and has experimented with a variety of upcycled and plant-based materials. The company’s scientists tinkered with plants, including soy, for seat cushions. The seats in one of Ford’s pickup trucks is upholstered with fabric made out of recycled plastic bottles. Even something as benign as window trim went under the microscope as Ford tries to find ways to not only mitigate its environmental impact, but also reduce costs for the long term. Coconut fibers, the tropical plant kenaf, recycled denim and even shredded paper currency have all undergone testing in Ford’s Dearborn laboratories.
These moves in Detroit may not be fast enough for those who still remember the auto companies’ refusal to adapt any changes in the interest of public safety or the environment, a history that includes just about everything from catalytic converters to seat belts and air bags. But as consumer habits change and more people view driving as more of an annoyance than privilege, efforts such as this one by Ford are necessary for these companies to stay relevant in the 21st century.
Image credit: Ford Motor Co.