From corn to car parts?

by guest blogger Angela Harris, Research Engineer at Ford Motor Company

This past year, I had the incredible opportunity to work with the Indiana State Museum to help develop an exhibit called Amazing Maize, which highlights the history and many uses of corn. Throughout the development of the exhibit, I was able to share with them how Ford Motor Company is actively researching opportunities to develop new, sustainable materials for our vehicles. At Ford, we believe in taking a total green approach to vehicle development and design, stepping beyond fuel efficiency and what’s under the hood; to incorporating sustainable materials into the vehicles we build.

Samples of materials and parts made from PLA.

Did you know traditional plastic materials are most commonly derived from petroleum? We realize petroleum is a limited resource and are looking at many different ways to reduce our usage. One way to achieve this is by using crops that can be grown as a renewable feedstock for plastics. We have already been successful developing and implementing soy-based foams for seat backs, cushions and headrests in the majority of the vehicles we produce. Our team has also included wheat straw as a filler in storage bins on the Ford Flex. Another material we are now actively researching for future use is a biodegradable plastic that is 100 percent corn based, called polylactide (PLA).

I’m sure plastic car parts are not the first thing that come to mind when you think about uses for corn, is it? So how do you get plastic from corn? Basically, the PLA plastic comes from corn starch, which can ultimately be processed into a part, fiber or film. Even though we are early in the development phase with PLA, we see many future potential automotive uses for this eco-friendly plastic in vehicle carpeting, upholstery and interior trim pieces. We are actively pursuing each of these applications and hope one day you will find corn-based plastic inside your next Ford vehicle. You can get a first-hand look at some of our prototype PLA parts we have developed, as a part of the Amazing Maize exhibit!

As I mentioned, PLA is biodegradable. In fact, PLA plastic parts will degrade to produce energy — carbon dioxide and water — in 90 to 120 days under the right composting conditions, compared to traditional petroleum based plastic which takes up to 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill. Since this plastic is compostable, we are researching ways to ensure that the PLA meets our durability and performance requirements. After all, we don’t want your car to compost while you’re still driving it! When we introduce a new material into our vehicles, that material must meet all of our stringent specifications and standards.

The Indiana State Museum’s Amazing Maize exhibit, opening Sept. 24, will give museum-goers a first hand look at Ford’s bio-materials research program, as well as a look inside our corn-based ethanol technology. It’s a great example of significant, industrial uses for corn and innovations for the future of corn. We, at Ford Motor Company, are so excited to be a part of this educational exhibit.