In its most recent effort to increase sustainability, Ford Motor Co. announced Aug. 5 that it will use rice hulls, a byproduct of rice grain, as a natural replacement for talc in the electrical harnesses of 2014 F-150 trucks.
For the past year and a half, Ford has been working with RheTech Inc., a compounder headquartered in Whitmore Lake, Mich., to produce rice hull-reinforced plastic for automotive applications.
"There are several companies out there that have done wood fiber for a long time, but we think we're the only one in North America working with rice," said Jim Preston, vice president of business development at RheTech. "This Ford application is very exciting for us because of the potential where this material can go within the OEM."
Rice hulls are one of many natural fibers that RheTech utilizes to reinforce polyolefins in consumer products. However, this is the first time the company developed natural fibers for an automotive application, Preston said.
"The automotive OEM community as a whole is very open to using natural fibers," he said. "The key is that part performance can't suffer."
Not only are bio-based fibers like rice hulls comparable to other materials, they are often more lightweight and sometimes even less expensive to produce — a huge potential benefit to automakers.
"Fuel economy is a top priority when it comes to Ford's environmental impact," said Carrie Majeske, Ford product sustainability manager, in a statement. "But we also recognize the tremendous impact that can be made by using sustainable materials inside our cars, utilities and trucks."
Other sustainable features of the new F-150 trucks include: recycled cotton used for carpet insulation, soybeans used in seat cushions, recycled carpet, recycled tires used to make shields and underbody covers, recycled PET for wheel liners and shields, and recycled post-industrial plastics for interior finish panels around radio and climate controls.
The company will be using approximately 45,000 pounds of rice hulls for the electrical harnesses in the first year of development, according to the news release. The hulls will be sourced from farms in Arkansas.
Ford is also considering expanding its use of rice hulls in their vehicles, though firm plans have not been set to do so. "We typically start with a pilot part and migrate to other vehicles and applications when we've confirmed success," said Majeske in an email.