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 September 01, 2016
A car made from tequila? Ford Motor Co says it's good for the planet

 When you put tequila and cars side-by-side, the story doesn't usually end well. But Ford is trying to change the narrative.

The car manufacturer has plans to introduce a new kind of plastic for some of its automobile parts using waste material generated by Jose Cuervo, the tequila manufacturer. Tequila is made by juicing the heart of an agave plant, a spiky desert succulent with a core composed of very strong fibers. These fibers are left over during the juicing process, and are usually thrown away or burned.

Now, Ford hopes to use these agave fibers to create a so-called bioplastic to replace synthetic materials, such as fiberglass, which are used to strengthen plastic components in cars -- things such as storage bins, air-conditioning ducts and fuse boxes.

Bioplastics are an old class of materials, invented after Anselme Payen, a French chemist, discovered cellulose in 1838 -- a compound in many plants that can be made into fibers. By the late 1800s, cellulose from plants was being used to make rayon and viscose fabrics, as well as cellulose acetate photographic film, or safety film, designed to replace highly flammable nitrate film. Carmaker Henry Ford became an early champion, developing soybean-based plastic auto parts in the 1940s.

Ford began using a soy-based foam in seat cushions for the Mustang coupe in 2001, a material produced from crop waste on soybean fields in the Midwest. It is now used in every vehicle Ford makes in North America, and has also been adopted by the mattress industry.

Later, in 2010, the car manufacturer looked at using plastics produced with wheat straw in the Flex SUV, which is manufactured in Ontario, Canada. The straw was previously burned by Canadian farmers because the climate was too cold to compost it. It was adopted as a reinforcing material in automobile plastics to replace talc, which must be mined.

Agave fibers will serve the same purpose in a new hybrid plastic. The fibers are extremely strong and resilient, and have been used for centuries by indigenous people in both the US and Mexico for sewing and weaving, and for making rope.

"There are a lot of companies around the world that are looking at agave fibers," says David Grewell, an associate professor at Iowa State University and also director of the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites, a National Science Foundation research center.

"The fibers themselves are relatively flexible, so that when they go through processing equipment, they are able to retain their strength. They don't break and they're relatively tough. Unlike glass fibers, which tend to be relatively brittle and not able to absorb energy."

Ford hopes to begin using the new bioplastic made from agave at its factory in Hermosillo, Mexico, where it builds the Fusion and Lincoln MKZ sedans, within a year or two.

"You've heard of the farm-to-table movement in food," says Debbie Mielewski, Ford's senior technical leader of sustainable products. "This is sort of the same kind of thinking, where you would look at the local farms and see what kind of things could be incorporated into our products. We call it farm-to-car."

Bioplastics may sound natural, but there is some controversy about how they break down. Many people make the assumption that because bioplastics contain natural materials, they must also be recyclable or compostable -- or both. Whether either of these is possible generally depends upon what makes up the plastic substitute in the final material.

Frederick Michel, an associate professor of food, agriculture and biological engineering at Ohio State University, notes that despite robust recycling programs in the US, most plastics still end up as garbage in a landfill. So a new product's fate in that environment is important to consider. Michel says Ford's new material can't be considered a true bioplastic, because the agave fibers are merely a strengthening filler mixed with a petroleum based plastic, not one derived from natural materials.

"If [bioplastics] are made from carbon from the atmosphere, and do not degrade in the landfill, then they can sequester atmospheric carbon and reduce global warming," Michel says. "If they do biodegrade in the landfill, they form methane, which is a greenhouse gas 20-30 times worse than carbon dioxide. So it depends."

One example of a petroleum based bioplastic is the PlantBottle developed by Coca-Cola in 2009. Some 30% of the material comes from sugar cane, the remaining 70% is petroleum derived. The company has been gradually phasing in the use of this material, and expects all its plastic bottles to use it by 2020.

Ford has collaborated with Coca-Cola in the past to use PlantBottle material on a trial basis in seat fabrics.

Mielewski says Ford's tests with the agave bioplastic have switched 30% of the strengthening material in the bioplastic to agave fibers, while the rest remains either fiberglass or talc. The balance of the material is a petroleum-derived plastic.

She said the company has not yet found a bioplastic that lasts long enough in car parts. Most biodegrade too quickly, yielding a shorter lifespan than the car itself.

"The advantage with switching out fiberglass with agave is the agave is more recyclable," she says. "The fiber doesn't break when remolding, so there is potential there to reuse it in the same product."

Possibly the most direct advantage, Mielewski says, is improved fuel efficiency. A typical car totes around some 400lbs of plastic, she says. Plastics made with plants tend to be about 20% lighter, potentially cutting 80-100lbs off a car's weight. That's enough, she says, to produce a measurable drop in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Across the 2.6m vehicles sold by Ford in 2015, this has the potential to significantly reduce the company's carbon emissions.

Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, praised Ford for focusing on agricultural waste, rather than virgin materials. There are 5bn metric tons of agricultural waste produced globally every year, Hoover says, so reusing more of this is important to the planet. It is also preferable to growing a plant specifically to make plastic, which takes land and other resources out of food production.

"It's absolutely true that you're avoiding impacts that likely would happen if that agave waste were not repurposed," Hoover says. "All of that would create near term carbon emissions. So finding ways to repurpose those into products is commendable."