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Published on September 3rd, 2013 | by Susanna Schick


Women In Green Forum 2013 | Ford’s Future Plastics

September 3rd, 2013 by  

LA Councilwoman Jan Perry Interviews Dr. Lee (seated). Photo courtesy of Jenny Low

At the recent Women in Green Forum, we had the pleasure of not only watching Dr. Ellen Lee give a presentation on the work Ford is doing to end its dependency on petroleum-based materials, but also sat down with her to get to the tofu of the matter…

Dr. Ellen Lee and her team spend their days devising new ways to make plastics more sustainable. She does this at Ford, so it’s not just about renewable resources, but also about reducing weight. She’s always on the lookout for the lightest materials with the lowest environmental impact, at Ford prices. Sure, carbon fiber is light, but it’s also expensive and petroleum-based.

Dr. Lee is looking into developing a replacement for carbon fiber from another polymer that’s cheaper and comes from a different source. Something as cheap as fiberglass but as strong as carbon fiber. Her team is currently looking into Lignan as a precursor for the polymer, through a partnership with Weyerhauser. Lignan is a by-product of their cellulose manufacture which should have similar properties, but they’re still not quite there. In the meantime, they’re using some industrial carbon fiber waste. For example, the cuttings from aerospace are quite large and can be used to make smaller parts for their vehicles.

Dr Lee slide17 team

Dr. Ellen Lee (grey jacket) and her team of biomaterials R&D superstars. Slide courtesy of Ford

Using bio-based materials is not an entirely new concept for Ford. Dr. Lee began her presentation telling us about how, 75 years ago, Henry Ford envisioned a symbiotic relationship between the automaker and the farmer. He stated: “One day, you’ll have car parts that are grown on the farm.” Today that’s starting to happen, in large part thanks to Bill Ford, Jr. In his early days at Ford Motor Company, Bill tried hard to bring sustainability to Ford, but was met with strong resistance. He was even told to not associate with any known or suspected Environmentalists. He ignored those warnings, and now as Chairman of the Board, his vision echoes that of Henry Ford. Innovation, regulatory trends, consumers, and competitors all contribute toward inspiring Ford’s new developments.

CO2 emissions are important, but so is fuel economy, for both environmental and economic concerns. Thus, Dr. Lee’s team is constantly seeking lighter materials for Ford’s vehicles. Dr. Lee highlights the “Power of Choice” lineup Ford offers, since not everyone needs an F150, or a fully electric Focus, for that matter. The F150 comes with ecoboost, a turbo boost that enables a smaller engine to deliver more punch when hauling a few tons around town. The Focus is available in pure electric for people in markets where the infrastructure exists, like California.

Slide courtesy of Ford

Slide courtesy of Ford

Dr. Lee went on to discuss the different types of materials they’re working with. This slide shows the breakdown. As you can see, a lot of them are bio-based. As in, made from food. Dr. Lee explained to me in our interview that they are only interested in materials that don’t compete with the food market. Either waste, like wheat straw, coconut shells, etc.; or excess, like soybeans.

Apparently, part of the US’s highly dysfunctional farming incentive program includes using tax dollars to encourage farmers to grow more soybeans than the market can bear, which in turn lowers the price and leaves the farmers with a surplus. Ford then buys these surplus beans (which never should’ve been grown in the first place, but there they are) and uses them to make foam for seats. 20% of all Ford seats today are made from soyfoam, blended into the PET foam (so don’t try to eat it).

In countries where soy is not overproduced, Ford uses other materials. Dr. Lee explained: “We look at soy as a baby step, and once the technology is developed, we can move to more sustainable sources. Current research looks into using waste materials, and even landfill as sources for materials.”

Slide courtesy of Ford

Slide courtesy of Ford

For more Ford or Ford Focus Electric stories from CleanTechnica, check out our Ford and Ford Focus Electric archives. (We’re especially obsessive about covering news concerning the Ford Focus Electric.)

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About the Author

Susanna is passionate about anything fast and electric. As long as it's only got two wheels. She covers electric motorcycle racing events, test rides electric motorcycles, and interviews industry leaders. Occasionally she deigns to cover automobile events in Los Angeles for us as well. However, she dreams of a day when Los Angeles' streets resemble the two-wheeled paradise she discovered living in Barcelona and will not rest until she's converted the masses to two-wheeled bliss.

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