Ford Motor Co. is taking a serious look at bio-based and biodegradable plastics, and asking if it will be possible one day to make an auto interior part that not only can be made from natural products, but also will break down and disappear back into the earth after its life is over.
``It's the big project,'' said Deborah Mielewski, technical leader of the materials research and advanced engineering department for Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford. ``Before I retire, I want to reach the point where we stop making automotive plastics that are thrown into the landfill and last forever.''
That point is far from today's reality, Mielewski said during a June 4 discussion at the Ward's Auto Interiors Show in Detroit. But the auto industry has managed to create breakthrough technology in the past.
Just consider a soybean-based urethane foam blend, which won its first application in August 2007 on the Mustang, and now is on six Ford vehicles, she said.
Mielewski's group is looking at a range of new materials for future use, including shape memory polymers, composites in thermoplastics and thermoset that use natural structural materials like kenaf, hemp and jute instead of glass, and greater use of Mucell technology to reduce the amount of resin needed in each part.
But the team's biggest challenge is in using corn-based polylactic acid resin and finding ways to use it to replace traditional plastics.
``You combine that with natural fibers, and you get a completely compostable product,'' she said.
PLA is a very flexible resin, she said, capable of being produced in sheets, injection molded and blow molded, but Ford's big project also faces two very big hurdles. PLA is designed for temporary use and will break down naturally within 120 days - which means it would not stand up to a typical car's life. And molding PLA takes minutes, rather than seconds, in the press.
``We have to heat it up in the mold, but heating it up also helps it biodegrade,'' said Dan Herndon, director of new product strategy and innovation for Plymouth, Mich.-based Johnson Controls Inc.'s automotive group.
Mielewski's group has focused its research on improving the durability and processing time of PLA to move the resin toward Ford's long-term goals. Using natural fillers like talc, clay and cellulose should make it possible to shorten the cycle time, she said.
At the same time, the group has experimented with other natural fibers for structural support, including coconut coir - the fiber found in a coconut husk - and rice hulls.
Future environmentally focused consumers may even want to see the grain of a natural fiber in a plastic, which would ease the way to using it in an interior part, she said.
Although interior parts are Ford's long-term goal, Mielewski said the automaker may use PLA in other ways in the short term, such as in packaging and protective films now used to ship parts from suppliers' plants. It makes sense to use a disposable resin for those disposable items, she said.
``It's not that it can't be done, it's just that it's not easy,'' she said.
Consumers may also play a part in keeping the auto industry focused on the environment. Mielewski, who is featured in a Ford commercial touting its research into bioresins, said she's been surprised at how much positive feedback she's received from the ad.
``People are very interested in our work,'' she said.
And with PLA getting attention as a biodegradable resin everywhere from the corner coffee shop to Wal-Mart stores, it is something consumers can connect with.
``People see a PLA cup and ask, `Why can't Ford put this in a car?''' she said. ``Our job is to take all of the issues and work them through.''