Anaheim, Calif. — At Antec, a Ford Motor Co. research scientist said the automaker is using bio-plastics right now — and is even looking at waste plastics from the oceans.
"Right now all the vehicles in North America, they use soybean oil-based seat backs, seat cushions, and head rests, and even some head liners," said Alper Kiziltas, who works in the materials research department at Ford's Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Mich.
Ford has been active in biomaterials since the 1920s, when Henry Ford used wheat straw. The automaker used plastics made from soybeans, hemp and other natural materials in the 1940s.
Ford has come full-circle. Kiziltas said the average Ford vehicle uses 20 to 40 pounds of renewable plastics, such as soy-based foams, seals, and gaskets, caster-oil based foams and plastics with natural-fiber reinforcing materials.
One challenge is making sure the bio-based materials have a good surface finish. "But customers want to see more natural fibers on the surface," he said.
Other issues are odors, moisture sensitivity, degradation, resistance to weathering, and the ability to withstand the harsh environment of cars and trucks, Kiziltas said. Economics are important.
"People always asking, what about Ford Motor Co., are you guys using bioplastic materials?" he said. "And yes, we are looking for bioplastic materials. Bio-based plastics. Biodegradable materials. We are really interested in it all."
But is has to be durable. That's why nylon is used so much in automotive. "You don't want to see your car crumpling or getting ripped in only a couple months," Kiziltas said.
For the starch-based materials, such as polylactic acid or polyhydroxyalkanoate copolymers (PHA), Kiziltas said: "The materials are not durable, and their economics are not yet there [for automotive applications]. And also, the density is higher vs. the polypropylene type of materials."
The Ford research scientist said ocean waste is a huge problem. "We should collect plastic from the ocean, even though it's a mixed stream," he said.
"We need to make sure we work together — engineers, scientists, suppliers, to find a solution for this idea. And we are looking to the oceans. Can we make car parts using ocean plastics?" Kiziltas said.
Other trends include antimicrobial additives in car interiors, so people who use shared cars don't pick up the germs of the last driver. He said research has shown that consumers also want self-cleaning material — they're sick of cleaning dust off the dashboard.