Biomimicry might not be the first word that comes to mind in association with the US automotive industry, but if the Ford Motor Company has any say in the matter, that’s going to change sooner rather than later. Earlier this week Ford teased out some news about its exploration of two-way adhesives based on the special skills of the gecko lizard.
CleanTechnica got a chance to break it all down during a phone conversation earlier this week with Deborah Mielewski, who heads up Ford’s research into biobased plastics and other sustainable solutions.
From Bio-based To Biomimicry
The last time we checked in on Ford’s forays into bio-based automotive materials, the company was investigating the sap from Russian dandelions as a home-grown substitute for natural rubber. That was back in 2011, and a lot has happened since then.
Dandelions are still in the works, and the company has introduced soy foam seating, wheat straw storage bins and a wood cellulose composite to replace fiberglass. Ford has also extended its explorations beyond simply using bio-based materials, to doing biomimicry — that is, replicating the systems that enable those materials to function with optimal efficiency. Mielewski explains:
The whole idea of looking at some of our biggest problems in automotive and how we might apply solutions from nature is where it all started. In the process of learning we discovered there’s a lot of waste products and inefficiencies in industry. I started to think about the efficiency of nature, and how everything is reused and optimized.
Over billions of years trees have learned how to transmit their seeds in a certain way so they’ll have better survival, so those are the ones that survive. With evolution you get some really elegant and unusual optimized solutions.
The Search For A Two-Way Glue
Mielewski is looking for an assist from the gecko for a particularly pressing issue, which is to improve the recycling rate for car parts. Right now, she explained, plastics and other materials that have been glued together can’t be broken down for recycling, so the landfill or incinerator is the next step.
This next-generation adhesive would have a dual role because aside from holding materials together with a strong bond, it needs to be able to let go quickly and efficiently for recycling.
The lizard’s toe pads allow it to stick to most surfaces without liquids or surface tension. The reptile can then easily release itself, leaving no residue. Consider, too, that a typical mature gecko weighing 2.5 ounces is capable of supporting 293 pounds.
More Biobased Materials For Your Personal Mobility
Aside from the environmental goodness, Mielewski sees a bottom line benefit in the pursuit of biomimicry and biobased materials. As she sees it, the old saw “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” should be applied to industry as a collaborative, closed loop model for reclaiming industrial waste.
One example she cites is tomato waste from the company Heinz. As it turns out, tomato fiber is strong and light, and it could be used as a lightweight replacement for talc as a reinforcement for plastic parts (Ford and Heinz are also in on Coca-Cola’s “PlantBottle” biobased plastic initiative).
Biobased parts offer an opportunity for local sourcing that reduces shipping costs. They also offer new opportunities for local economic development. The Midwest is “swimming in soybeans,” Mielewski notes, which is one reason why Ford has been focusing on that resource.
“With biobased materials, industry can utilize locally, just like people are eating locally,” she says Mielewski.
As for the future, Mielewski is excited about the practically limitless possibilities:
One of the ones that I think [shows a lot of promise] is algae, because it grows so darn fast…for me that means never being limited by materials. Bamboo also grows really fast. Oat hulls are another interesting one. They are pretty darn big and a lot of the hull is left over. One of my favorites is increasing the soy content, and another is using the cellulose from trees…this material has the potential to go a lot of places. Mustard seed oil in Canada is extensively grown and it can be made into a foam as well. I learn about new plants and new waste products every day. It’s crazy.
In closing the interview Mielewski put the whole thing in a historical perspective. Way back when, Henry Ford envisioned a more collaborative relationship between industry and agriculture. The difference now, she explains, is that we have the tools and the technology to make it happen:
It’s much easier to get this accomplished in our society and I certainly hope we do it for our kids, because it is better for the environment, it provides more choices for materials and it’s the right thing to do for so many reasons.
Image (cropped and rotated): via Ford Motor Company.