Ford explores biodegradable, corn-based plastics

Deborah Mielewski and other Ford researchers want to develop bio-based, biodegradable plastics that can be used to make interior auto parts.
DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. is taking a serious look at bio-based and biodegradable plastics. Its goal: Make interior auto parts from natural products that will dissolve after their lives are over.

"It's the big project," said Deborah Mielewski, technical leader of Ford's materials research and advanced engineering department. "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 discussion this month at the Ward's Auto Interiors Show here.

Soybean breakthrough

Still, the auto industry has developed breakthrough technology before. Consider a soybean-based urethane foam blend, which Ford began using last year in the Mustang and now is in six Ford vehicles, she said.

Mielewski's group is looking at a range of new materials for future use, including:

-- Shape-memory polymers that return to a preset shape at a certain temperature.

-- Composites that use natural structural materials such as kenaf, hemp and jute instead of glass.

-- Corn-based polylactic acid, or PLA, resin.

-- Greater use of Mucell technology to reduce the amount of resin needed in each part. Mucell technology uses microscopic air bubbles to improve the structural performance of a plastic, allowing companies to use less resin while getting the same performance.

The Ford team's biggest challenge is in replacing traditional plastics with PLA.

"You combine that with natural fibers, and you get a completely compostable product," Mielewski said.

PLA is a flexible resin, she said. It can be made in sheets, injection molded and blow molded. PLA has become a favored material for biodegradable cups at some coffee shops.

But automotive use of PLA faces two big hurdles:

1. PLA, as currently engineered, breaks down naturally within 120 days.

2. 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 Johnson Controls Inc.'s automotive group in suburban Detroit.

Mielewski's group has focused its research on improving the durability and processing time of PLA.

Corn plus coconut?

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 use it in an interior auto part, she said.

Although interior parts are Ford's long-term goal, Mielewski noted that PLA may find uses at the automaker in the short term, such as in packaging and protective films now used to ship parts from supplier plants. It makes sense to use a disposable resin for those disposable items, she said.

"It's not that it can't be done," she said. "It's just that it's not easy."

Consumers may also play a part in keeping the auto industry focused on the environment. Mie-lewski, who is featured in a Ford commercial touting its research into bio-resins, said she's been surprised at how much positive feedback she's received from the spot.

"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 that consumers can connect with.

"People see a PLA cup and ask, 'Why can't Ford put this in a car?' " Mielewski said. "Our job is to take all of the issues and work them through." 

You can reach Rhoda Miel at rmiel@crain.com

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