…in a high tech way, that is. Ford Motor Company’s luxury Lincoln brand has just announced that the 2014 Lincoln MKX crossover model will be sporting an interior part that replaces conventional fiberglass with a composite material made with renewable wood cellulose, from trees. Okay, so it’s just one part, and it’s only an arm rest, which makes it practically a thought experiment for now, but according to Ford this is just for starters.
Putting the composite into an actual 2014 production model is a big step up for Ford. The material has been under development for three years in a collaboration with timber giant Weyerhaeuser and sustainable tech leader (and car parts manufacturer) Johnson Controls, and up to now it has only been used in a prototype.
The wood-reinforced polymer — Cellulose Reinforced Polypropylene, to be precise — is about six percent lighter than fiberglass. When used to replace larger fiberglass parts the new composite should have a significant impact on fuel efficiency.
That’s a critical difference for big gas-guzzlers like the Lincoln MKX. In addition to the potential for fuel savings there’s also the renewable materials angle, so the Ford marketing team is leaning sustainability to help make the MKX stand out in the crowded luxury crossover market.
Of course you could make the argument that a sustainable crossover is an oxymoron (and please do, in the comment thread) whether you’re driving on gas or electricity, but the fact is that the global crossover market is hot, so absent a global ban (dream on, Klingon), the auto industry is going to keep cranking them out. If using more sustainable materials translates into a competitive edge within that market, so much the better.
The Return Of The Woodie, Sort Of
You might not see actual wood returning to car exteriors, but just the other day we were noticing that Ford has been pumping a lot of effort into biobased car parts such as soy foam seat cushions, plastic storage components reinforced with wheat straw, and recycled yarns including denim (aka cotton). The company is even experimenting with rubber made from dandelions.
Also keep in mind that cellulose from trees could be just a first-generation application. We were also just noticing a collaboration between GM, Purdue University, and the US Department of Agriculture on developing nanocrystals of cellulose for use in composite materials in vehicles and other products.
So far the work is in its initial stages but computer modeling has demonstrated that the nanocrystals have a stiffness of 206 gigapascals, which is in the same range as steel.
Image (cropped): Woodies by Rex Gray.
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