Ford Motor Co. and H.J. Heinz Co. are testing bioplastics that use waste fiber from tomato processing. The goal is to find more sustainable alternatives to petrochemical-based materials used in car manufacturing, and to recycle the byproducts from more than 2 million tons of tomatoes processed each year to make ketchup.
Ford is looking at the possibility of replacing talc-reinforced composites used in non-structural components of a car, such as the trim and interior, Helen Lee, plastics research technical specialist for Ford, told Design News. Examples of possible components are vehicle wiring brackets and storage bins. The byproducts, called tomato pomace in their raw state, consist mostly of tomato skins, in addition to stems and seeds. Heinz researchers have been looking into new ways to recycle and repurpose them.
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"The tomato-based material isn't being launched yet," Lee told us. "We've made some composites using tomato skin fibers, we've evaluated their properties, and now we're looking at where those properties match up with the type of applications we want to target with this material." The goal is to make a strong, lightweight composite that reduces the company's environmental impact, which is right in line with Ford's continuing sustainability goals for cutting vehicle carbon dioxide emissions and waste that goes to landfills.
The new material's properties are slightly different from other plant fiber-based materials Ford has investigated, such as wheat straw and coconut fiber composites, Lee told us. In comparison to more traditional composites like glass- and mineral-reinforced polypropylene and ABS, plant fiber-reinforced thermoplastics have several advantages. In injection molding, they can reduce weight by 5% to 12%, and cycle time by 8% to 40%. They also lower process temperatures by 40 degrees F to 150 degrees F, and reduce costs by about 5%. In compression-molded applications, composites reinforced with plant fibers reduce weigh up to 50%.
Some of the plant fiber composites Ford has looked at include polypropylene reinforced with hemp fiber, kenaf fiber, and cellulose fiber. Ford uses several different sustainable materials in a number of its cars: recycled blue jeans, recycled plastic bottles, post-consumer plastics, post-industrial yarns, and post-consumer nylon carpeting, as well as those based on plant fiber.
When we talked to Carrie Majeske, Ford's product sustainability manager, a year ago, she told us that not many of Ford's sustainable materials were bio-based, compared to its greater use of recycled materials. But that's started to change: Now Ford has eight bio-based materials in production, according to a press release. These include soy foam seat cushions and head restraints, recycled cotton material for carpeting and seat fabrics, coconut-based composite materials, and two introduced within the past year: rice hull-filled electrical cowl brackets and cellulose fiber-reinforced console components.
Cellulose-reinforced composites based on tree fibers were launched for the first time in a production car in the 2014 Lincoln MKX, announced last December. There, the Cellulose Reinforced Polypropylene replaces fiberglass in the substrate of the car's center console armrest. This material, created by a collaboration with Weyerhaeuser and auto parts supplier Johnson Controls, is about 6% lighter in weight than fiberglass. Ford is considering its use in larger components.
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