A next-generation sustainable foam is a finalist in the 2017 SPE Automotive design competition.
A castor oil-based foam is used in an innovative way on the 2018 Ford Fusion sedan. The material is BASF’s Elastoflex 13/4 Iso polyurethane. It’s a foam-in-place material that provides for a lower molded density and ability to be foamed in as little as 4 mm cross sections with superior bond strength to mating materials, according to Ford.
A cast PVC, TPE, or TPU skin is placed in the mold with a hard plastic retainer and the foam is injected between them. A weight savings of 20 to 40 percent (depending on foam thickness) and a cost savings of $2 per instrument panel is said to be achieved.
Use of castor oil in foam at Ford dates to 2012.
It’s part of a 17-year Ford effort to replace fossil fuels with sustainable materials led by Debbie Mielewski, senior technical leader, Materials Sustainability.
Use of material from soy and castor plants is one aspect. In another, efforts to replace glass fiber and talc with sustainable materials continues to grow. Materials under study (including a few limited commercial programs) include wheat straw, kenaf fiber, cellulose, wood, coconut fiber and rice hulls.
“There are about 400 pounds of plastic on a typical car,” says Mielewski. “Our job is to find the right place for a green composite like this to help our impact on the planet. It is work that I’m really proud of, and it could have broad impact across numerous industries.”
One of the more interesting and most recent efforts is with Jose Cuervo to find an automotive application for waste fiber from the agave plants used to make tequila.
Her research team did pioneering work—with financial help from a farmers’ trade group—to make soybeans fit for use as a component in polyurethane foam now widely used in Ford cars. Soy oil is used in seat cushions, seat backs and headrests of every vehicle Ford builds in North America.
“Now, 18.5 million-plus vehicles and half a trillion soybeans later, we’ve saved more than 228 million pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere,” says Mielewski. “This is the same amount that would be consumed by 4 million trees per year, according to North Carolina State University.”
Ford continues to collaborate with the United Soybean Board to develop soy-based materials for rubber components like gaskets, seals and wiper blades.
Ford is replacing up to 40 percent pf the petroleum in a slap pad from natural rubber in another innovation recognized as a finalist in this year’s SPE Automotive design competition. The part in the 2018 F-150 pickup and the technology can be translated to any vehicle line with leaf springs including trucks, vans and SUVs. The compression molded part is made by Rasini.
Benefits include durability and reduced noise.
Ford is also exploring innovative uses of carbon itself, and says it is one of the first in the industry to develop foams and plastics using captured carbon dioxide.