It takes an average of 400 pounds of plastic to make a car. Compare that with the 5 billion metric tons of agricultural biomass waste produced annually. What if, in the future, that waste could be used to replace some of the plastic in our cars?
Thanks to the unlikely pairing of Ford and Jose Cuervo, we’re one step closer to that becoming a reality. The spirits brand and America’s oldest car company have partnered to produce a bioplastic made of agave biowaste leftover from the tequila-making process—a huge step toward creating a more sustainable vehicle.
To better understand the process, we caught up with Debbie Mielewski, Ford’s senior technical leader of sustainable materials, to talk about how agricultural waste could literally help shape the car of the future.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Debbie. So, how did this partnership come to be?
Debbie Mielewski: Ford is committed to improving the sustainability of its vehicles and to reducing its impact on the environment by increasing the use of renewable and recycled materials. When we first started discussing the potential opportunity to use agave as feedstock, Jose Cuervo was the first name that came to mind, and we approached them with the idea to source small amounts of agave for our initial research. Given the company’s commitment to agave sustainability, the team was eager to work with us to explore opportunities to give agave a second life after the tequila manufacturing process.
What makes agave a good candidate for a successful bioplastic compared to other agricultural products?
Our initial assessments suggest that the material’s durability and aesthetic quality could potentially make it suitable for vehicle application. So far, the agave material has gone through all of the necessary screening tests (chemical, physical, and odor) to help us to determine the appropriate applications for the material.
How do you make bioplastic from agave?
It takes seven years to grow an agave plant. Once harvested, the plant is roasted and pressed to extract juices for distillation. The remaining agave fiber is dried, then shipped to our facilities, where the fiber is mixed with traditional polymer to create the bioplastic; we use about 20 percent fiber to reinforce our plastics. Using agave fiber instead of traditional fillers such as talc and glass fiber helps to make vehicles lighter for better fuel economy. The composite material must meet all performance, durability, and regulatory requirements for the particular application before being placed on Ford vehicles.
What are the issues you face when creating a bioplastic?
Depending on the material, we sometimes have issues with odor. When we started our work with soy-based foam, the bio-material smelled like rancid popcorn! We learned several ways to address this through our research, and the material eventually passed all odor tests. Part of the initial research process is to look at many different properties of a new biomaterial, and to identify the most appropriate application. Thus far with the agave fiber, we have noticed after injection molding that the fiber lends a caramel-like color to the originally white plastic—it’s actually quite nice! We do think there may be odor issues with agave fiber in its raw state, so we are studying ways to remove/neutralize the odor. Other problems we’ve had in the past are getting even fiber distribution in the plastic, separation of bio-based materials from their petroleum counterparts, and tweaking the process conditions during molding so as not to degrade the fiber.
How can this bioplastic help offset the environmental impact of driving a car?
In addition to reducing the use of petrochemicals (conserving limited petroleum oil), successful application could reduce the weight of the car parts and help improve fuel economy, while reducing overall impact of vehicles on the environment. Many of the natural fiber materials we are studying are currently considered “waste”, and would otherwise be burned—creating more greenhouse gas emissions. These plant-based materials also offer potential additional revenue streams for farmers. Every time you use a plant, the plant is taking in carbon dioxide during its growth. All of these factors contribute to the favorable life cycle analysis that we see.
What do you foresee for the future of bioplastics like this?
I’ve been at this for over 15 years. At first, we thought it might be quite a feat to replace even one of the robust, engineered plastics that have been used in cars for over 50 years. Our group has been successful eight times now, and we are quite optimistic about the materials we are studying now in the lab. I think that most of the 400 pounds of plastic on an average automobile can be made greener—and that’s without compromising cost, performance or durability. And the materials don’t have to be confined to the car industry. We hope that they will be used by many other industries, such as agricultural equipment, office and home furniture, and building.
What other waste products have you investigated besides agave?
We’re constantly looking for sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based products and currently uses eight bio-based materials in its vehicles including soy, castor oil, wheat straw, kenaf fiber, cellulose, wood, coconut fiber and rice hulls. Other ongoing research projects include creating foam and other plastics from captured carbon dioxide—yes, this can be done!—as well as testing algae, tomato peel, bamboo and guayule shrubs for future vehicle applications.
What are your hopes for this particular bioplastic in particular?
My hope is that we can establish a supply chain to source the agave, so we can scale development and application. Since Ford is not in the business of creating plastic and we don’t do materials processing (molding components), the key is to generate the supply chain, such as a plastics compounder, to collect the fiber from a source like Jose Cuervo, and turn it into a useful material for Ford. Like soy foam, we would likely pick a first application on a particular vehicle, and then try to migrate that application to many others.
Is there anything besides plastics you are attempting to replace with agro-waste?
There are several other materials that we are exploring and some are in use already in production vehicles. For example, kenaf, a tropical plant in the cotton family, is used for the door substrates of the Ford Escape. REPREVE fabric, made from post-consumer, recycled plastic bottles, diverts more than 5 million plastic bottles from landfill annually and was recently introduced in the new F-150. Cotton from the waste cuttings of jeans and T-shirts is used as interior padding and sound insulation in most Ford vehicles. We are even looking at currency (dollars) that are taken out of circulation for use in coin trays. This material is shredded by the government and either landfilled or burned. Wouldn’t it be great to use it instead?
So, how soon will we be driving Fords with parts made of tequila byproducts?
The next step for this project is to establish a supply chain for agave, specifically blue agave, to scale the development and application of this bioplastic in vehicles, but implementation in production vehicles should be less than three years. We will continue to refine the material in our lab, determine the best options for first application, and begin molding parts for component testing. This is what we do, and it is exciting work!
Thanks for speaking with me.