Carbon Fiber Is Great, But Ford Is Really Excited About Tomatoes

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

These days, auto companies are looking all over for inspiration and insight into what will give their vehicles an edge over everyone else. Many new materials that were either unheard of or extremely rare are now commonplace — take carbon fiber or alcantara, for example. Ford, for its part, is reportedly looking at tomatoes.

Not the tomato fruits themselves (at least in their mature, ready-to-eat form), but rather tomato fibers that could unlock new opportunities in developing a sustainably sound alternative to current materials. Helping the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker in its endeavor is — and not at all surprisingly — H.J. Heinz Co., the ketchup conglomerate that was recently snapped up by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital. 

“We are exploring whether this food processing byproduct makes sense for an automotive application,” Dr. Ellen Lee, a Plastics Research Technical Specialist for Ford, said according to the Institute of Food Technologists. “Our goal is to develop a strong, lightweight material that meets our vehicle requirements, while at the same time reducing our overall environmental impact.”

At Heinz, researchers there are looking for new ways to recycle and reuse the peels, stems, and seeds from the more than 2 million tons of tomatoes that the Pittsburgh-based company uses every year to produce its ketchup. “We are delighted that the technology has been validated,” Vidhu Nagpal, the Associate Director of Packaging R&D for Heinz said. “Although we are in the very early stages of research, and many questions remain, we are excited about the possibilities this could produce for both Heinz and Ford, and the advancement of sustainable 100 percent plant-based plastics.”

Source: Ford
Source: Ford

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time that automakers — Ford, actually — have looked toward nature-inspired materials to incorporate into its cars. As it turns out, Henry Ford — the man himself — was a huge fan of farmers, and as such, wanted to integrate his company with their model. The idea was that if Ford could make their plastics out of farm materials, the relationship between the company and farmers would be mutually beneficial. In the early 1940s, Ford experimented with a car that used plastic components in place of steel, making the car lighter, and theoretically, safer. This car never saw production, but an article from the period in The New York Times surmised that, “The motor car business is just one of the industries that can find new uses for plastics, made from what’s grown in the land!”

It has been 73 years since then, and Ford is still working out how materials from agriculture could play a role in the modern automobile (though there was a lengthy hiatus after World War II, when Ford wisely focused more on war-effort stuff and less on bringing agriculture into the automobile). We spoke with Dr. Ellen Lee, who is the team leader of Plastics Research at Ford. She said that there are actually many plant-based materials being used in existing cars, as substitute fillers and adhesives that would ordinarily have relied on petroleum-based materials.

“We’ve been going for the low-hanging fruits,” Lee said on the phone, referring to the trim pieces, bumpers, seat cushions, and headrests that already utilize plant-based materials. Lee and her team picked up almost where Ford left off about a decade ago, and have since partnered with several large companies — Nike, Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Heinz were the ones she mentioned — to create more sustainable alternatives to the oil-based plastics used today.

No, the fabric you are sitting on isn’t made of woven tomato fibers; it’s more subtle than that. In the cushioning, there are oils used to form the material — oils that were once based on petroleum, but are now based on soybean or vegetable oils, developed with grant money offered by the United Soybean Board. Ford’s suppliers — namely Lear, JCI, and Woodbridge — have been brought on board with the new process, and Lee said that although Ford was a leader in the technique, other OEMs are embracing a more plant-based approach.

Ford’s labs are working hard on developing new breakthroughs for plant-based applications. There’s enormous potential to displace the oil-reliant plastics in a car with a plant-based solution. Hard plastics abound in today’s cars, and Lee’s team is hoping that each piece — from the numerous interior trim pieces to full bumpers, fascias, dashboards, and other large scale components can be more naturally derived. It’s also working on new tire compounds, and new paints and glues might also be in the works.

For the harder components, Ford is looking at sugars and biomass, and has partnered with the likes of Coca-Cola to help develop harder plastics that can withstand the normal trials and tribulations of wear and tear. The Coca-Cola PlantBottle is 30 percent plant-based, and the same technology can be scaled up to an automotive application rather easily. Lee says that down the road, Ford and Coca-Cola are aiming for a 100 percent plant-based plastic.

In addition to its grand goal of tying as much agriculture into the automotive production process as possible, Ford has been using other materials that would normally be thrown away — coconut husks, wheat straw — as what Lee called “side products.” Though these products still have yet to see widespread adoption on a mass-production scale, they are out there: the trunk package tray in the Ford Focus EV is made from coconut husks, which, when processed, have a sort of fiberboard-like feel to them.

Could a car that’s largely plant-based — and therefore more sustainable — ever be a reality? Perhaps eventually, but there are a lot of challenges to overcome, mainly with abilities to cope with stress and heat. But by employing materials that are either unsustainable — such as oil — or would be thrown away anyway, Ford and others can help reduce the footprint of its products as much as possible in the meantime.