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Ford Explores 'Suede' Fabrics Made From Pop Bottles, Nanotechnology, and More

Ford Motor Co., which is turning recycling plastic soda bottles into suede-like fabrics for vehicle interiors, is wading deeper into bio-based materials with soy-based rubber fillers and plastics that can biodegrade in 90 to 120 days -- compared to 1,000 years for conventional petroleum-based plastic.

Ford detailed its latest research at the 2009 Ward’s Auto Interior Conference Thursday, citing studies that suggest a quarter of U.S. adults are buying greener products and interested in socially responsible companies as they lead more sustainable lives. Aside from examining the materials it uses for its interiors, Ford also is retooling its operations as it pursues electric and more fuel-efficient powertrain technologies.

Ford's soy-based foam seat cushions, first introduced in 2007
Ford's soy-based foam seat cushions
The company introduced soy-based polyurethane foam seat cushions and backs in 2007, and has since included the cushions in more than a million vehicles, with a million more planned this year. The switch has avoided more than 5 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.

A soy-foam headliner is destined for the 2010 Escape and Mariner models. Now under development is rubber made with soy protein fillers instead of petroleum-based fillers for door seals, floor mats, gaskets and splash shields.

The company, however, is also seeking to diversify its materials, Spokeswoman Charlotte Fisher told Friday. “We wanted to be able to find many resources so we don’t become dependent on soy,” she said.

For example, Ford is also pursuing natural-fiber composites to replace glass fibers typically used to strengthen plastic auto parts. It has also created a plastic completely derived from corn, sugarbeets, sugarcane, switchgrass and other plant-based sugars called polylactic acid, which can biodegrade in as little as three months, while petroleum-based plastics can take 1,000 to biodegrade in a landfill.

The company is dipping its toes in nanotechnology to create nano-filler materials to increase the strength of metal and plastic composites while also reducing weight, which will lead to better fuel efficiency.

Ford's scientists are exploring nanotechnology and recycled materials for use in plastics and rubbers
Ford scientists
Other examples of innovative materials in use at Ford include recycled and reassembled ebony wood used in Lincoln vehicles, such as the Navigator.

The resins from used detergent bottles, tires and battery casings are also recycled into underbody systems, including aerodynamic shields, splash shields and radiator deflector shields. All 2009 models in North America will use recycled resin.

The 2010 Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrids will sport seat fabrics made from 100 percent post-industrial recycled yarns, which will reduce energy consumption 64 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent.

Twenty used soda bottles make one meter of the faux suede fabric used for the seats of the 2010 Ford Taurus SHO and Lincoln MKZ models.

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