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Ford takes Jose Cuervo shot

Double shot: A material made from tequila production waste could reduce both landfill and Ford’s petrochemical dependence.

Jose Cuervo and Ford explore environmentally spirited composite materials

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22 Jul 2016

FORD has clinked glasses and licked salt with Mexican spirits producer Jose Cuervo to explore the potential of a ‘bioplastic’ composite material made using a waste product from the tequila manufacturing industry.

The research is part of the car-maker’s strategy to reduce its dependence on petrochemicals and non-renewable resources, by developing materials made from natural ingredients that have little or no impact on the environment.

The central part of Jose Cuervo tequila production process pulverises the core of the blue agave plant to release fermentation sugars, leaving a strong cellulose fibre waste material that has the potential to reinforce resin like synthetic carbon or glass fibres.

Unlike some other natural raw materials that are grown specifically for use in materials manufacture, the bi-product from the tequila industry is a waste product and would otherwise end up as compost.

Ford is considering the material as a plastics substitute and if suitable, the product would reduce the amount of oil-dependant components in its vehicles while cutting the amount of organic waste material being land-filled by the tequila producer.

If successful, the new material will be added to the growing catalogue of sustainable materials currently used by the Blue Oval, which reads like a hipster’s shopping list, with soy foam, castor oil, wheat straw, kenaf fibre, cellulose, wood, coconut fibre and rice hulls all used in various models.

Like any fibre composite material, the agave strands are bonded together with a resin or plastic creating a durable synthetic material alternative, and in addition to the high-tensile strength of the fibres, the material is also lighter than some man-made products.

With a cumulative reduction of vehicle weight, the agave products could contribute to an overall improvement to fuel economy as well as the benefits to handling and performance that come with lower kerb mass.

Ford is also investigating the material’s ability to resist heat and fire, which could extend the number of applications in automotive as well as other industries.

The car-maker already uses natural fibre composites to produce interior parts such as door trims, and the new material is being considered for a wide range of components including wiring harness guttering, air ducts and storage bins.

With a natural randomness to the agave fibres, it is unlikely the more environmentally friendly composite will offer an alternative to extremely uniform and consistent carbon-fibres any time soon, but the technology is in infant stages of development and could hold great potential says Ford.

“There are about 400 pounds (181kg) of plastic on a typical car,” said Ford sustainability research department senior technical leader Debbie Mielewksi.

“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.”

Natural composite materials are not new to the automotive world and have been used by a number of manufacturers, but while most have hidden the material under a veneer of synthetics, Ford mentions the agave material’s “aesthetic qualities”.

The company could therefore follow BMW’s lead and exploit the way the products look in the same way the German brand did with the i3’s dashboard and door trims.

In May this year, Ford announced that it was conducting research into a range of new foams and plastics that not only depend on fewer petrochemicals but also lock up carbon, reducing the company’s carbon footprint.

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