Vegans troubled by the old refrain “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” have a friend at Ford. Soy, coconut, corn and other ingredients with healthy dining connotations are finding their way into new Fords in an effort to find alternative materials that are renewable, recyclable, or moreenvironmentally friendly than metals and plastics. In many cases, the harvested products are blended with existing materials. Some are even targeted for use in crash parts. Ford’s latest research: Seeing if discarded coconut husks can be a lightweight reinforcing material in storage bins, trim, and underbody panels.
Ford’s most recent foray into turning stuff that farmers grow into parts for your car involves coconut coir, the term for the husks, or hairy outsides of the coconut. Ford sees coconut coir mixed with plastic as a reinforcement material. Ellen Lee, a Ford technical expert on plastics, says of Ford’s research into using long natural fibers in plastic composites, “It’s something like carbon fiber,” although not necessarily quite as stiff and certainly nowhere as expensive as the material used in racecars and soon in electric vehicles that need to shed weight to extend battery life.
In Ford’s case, the coconut coir it uses goes through three life-streams. First it’s the protective husk when the coconut grows. Ford gets it from ScottsMiracle-Gro, the lawn seed and fertilizer company. Scotts mixes coconut coir into one of its grass seed mixes, Turf Builder EZ Seed, and a planting soil, Miracle-Gro Expand ’n’ Grow; the natural fibers hold 50% more water than plain potting soil. Ford buys Scotts’ leftover coconut coir.
Ford says the coconut coir-plastic parts could be used in door trim, seat trim, storage bins, center console substrates (an unseen part under the finish trim), and possibly as an underbody panel or exterior trim. Ford is testing durability now and also see if the natural flame-resistant properties of coconut coir carry over to the manufactured composite.
Because the long fibers of the coconut husk are visible in the part, Ford says the parts “offer a more natural look than typical materials,” meaning plastic. “More natural” isn’t quite the same as “natural.” You’d be hard-pressed to say this will be a dashboard trim in place of burl walnut or (a current eco favorite), sustainable-growth bamboo.
“We’re taking a material that is a waste stream from another industry and using it to increase the sustainability in our vehicles,” says Lee. “Some of the materials Ford is working with could also be used as biomass for creating gasoline-alternative fuels”, she notes. But a lot of it now gets buried or otherwise discarded by the growers. And there is currently no shortage of coconut husks.
Other Ford products derive from recycled or growing and sometimes edible materials, or at least the outsides of what’s edible inside. Since 2008, Ford has offered soy foam seat cushions and head restraints; the soy content is now up to 20% and the remainder is traditional petroleum-based foam. Ford is also working with wheat straw mixed showbox for android into plastic, castor oil foam used in instrument panels, and recycled yarns on seat covers. Most of the man-made materials are resistant to water, although some couldn’t take extended immersion, but neither can your car, as flood victims in the Northeast know well.