Stemergy: Renewable Fibre Technology

Odd couple: Ford Motor, Heinz team up to make tomato-based car parts

30 July 2014


There couldn't be two more disparate things than a car and a tomato, but two of the world's largest multinational companies are working on a project that combines the two in the name of sustainability.

A little more than two years ago, Dr. Ellen Lee and her team of researchers at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan, met with the officials of H.J Heinz. The order of the day: to discuss what to do with the tons of tomato byproduct – skin, stem and seeds – that Heinz usually disposes of after making its famous ketchup.

“Called 'tomato pomace', Heinz has plenty of the byproduct, as it uses more than two million tons of tomatoes per year to make its ketchup,” Lee, who is the team leader of Ford's Plastics Research Division, told GMA News Online in an email interview.

Lee said that with the tomato pomace, her team aims to make a reinforced polypropylene, a type of plastic or glass material that is more eco-friendly and lighter than a talc-reinforced counterpart.

“Our goal is to develop a strong, lightweight material that meets our vehicle requirements, while at the same time reducing our overall environmental impact,” Lee said.

Long way to go

Though the research still has a long way to go before its completion and implementation, Lee's group is optimistic that they can generate positive results in a shorter span of time than the previous studies they conducted on other biomaterials.

“There is no specific timetable yet as to when the research project will reach completion, but we are optimistic because our pattern on biomaterials going from research to implementation is getting shorter,” Lee said.

“We are not quite to the mid-point yet in terms of moving from research to product, but the experience that we have with other biomaterials will serve to accelerate our efforts,” she added.

For instance, Lee said, it took them seven years to research on the viability of soybean oil in the production of foam for seat cushions. But for their research on wheat straw, it only took them two years to prove that it is a viable material for plastic production.

The soybean foam seat cushion was first seen in Ford's 2008 Mustang. Now, soybean foam is being used for other cushioned parts of Ford vehicles, such as headrests and armrests.

Going green all the way

For Ford Motor, going green is a practice that dates from its founder, Henry Ford, who on August 13, 1941, introduced to the world the first car model made of plant-based plastic.

Known to the world as the Soybean Car or, more recently, the Hemp Body Car, the car featured a plastic frame made from soybean and hemp. The majority of the car's body was also made of plastic and the car was fueled by hemp combustible ethanol.

Lee said the company aims to continue what Ford had started.

“Ford Motor is committed to maximizing the use of recycled, renewable and recyclable content in its vehicles, while enabling maximum end-of-life vehicle recycling... In fact, we've continued to increase our use of recycled nonmetal and bio-based materials such as coconut-based composite materials, recycled cotton material for carpeting and seat fabrics, and soy foam seat cushions and head restraints,” Lee said.

To date, Ford's bio-based portfolio includes eight materials in production: soy foam seat cushions armrest and head restraints, hemp cellulose fiber for various plastic parts, recycled cotton material for carpeting and seat fabrics, coconut-based composite materials, wheat straw for plastic storage bins, fiber from a kind of hibiscus plant, kenaf for door bolsters, reinforced cellulose fiber derived from tree pulp for console components and rice hull-filled electrical cowl brackets.

The company is also using recycled materials. The 2012 Focus Electric features seat covers made of recycled plastic water bottles, while the 2013 Fusion uses two pairs' worth of old jeans for sound insulation. The dashboard of the 2013 Escape has 10 pounds' worth of old jeans, T-shirts, sweaters and other waste clothes as insulation.

Ford also uses recycled wood as interior trim and recycled yarn for upholstery in some of its car models.

The company is currently studying the use of shredded retired US currencies as material for interior parts such as coin trays and storage boxes.

Lighter, more fuel-efficient

With the use of lighter bio-based materials such as the tomato pomace, Lee said there is a high possibility that their new research would also result in more Ford car models with lower fuel consumption.

“We are still in the research phase, but we are optimistic about the tomato pomace because of the potential for weight reduction, which affects fuel consumption, cycle-time reduction, process-energy reduction and cost reductions,” Lee said.

“We've seen some or all of these benefits in our other applications of biomaterials,” she added.

For his part, Vidhu Nagpal, associate director of Heinz' packaging research and development (R&D) division, said though the research is still in its early stages, they are optimistic that it would lead to positive results.

“We are delighted that the technology has been validated. 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,” Nagpal said in a press statement.

In June 2012, Ford, Heinz, Coca-Cola Company, Nike Inc. and Procter & Gamble formed the Plant PET Technology Collaborative (PTC), a strategic working group focused on accelerating the research, development and use of 100-percent plant-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) materials in a variety of products such as plastic bottles, apparel, footwear and automotive fabric and carpet.

A plant-based PET is a durable and lightweight synthetic fiber or resin with a lower environmental impact than petroleum-based plastic currently in use.

“What goes into a vehicle at the beginning of its lifecycle and what comes out of it at the end contribute greatly to its environmental friendliness,” Lee said.

“By working with brands like Heinz, we are hoping to widen the support to use sustainable resources, expand the knowledge, and enable everyone to discover more plant-based materials that will be good for the environment,” she added.


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