Ford and MSU Collaborate on Plant-Based Composite for Auto Parts
Michigan State University in East Lansing and Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn have announced a collaboration to create new polymers and composites for the automotive industry using natural and sustainable materials.
Lawrence Drzal, a distinguished professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the College of Engineering, has worked to reduce the costs of composites used in cars for decades. He didn’t want to compromise on performance and focused his attention on plant fibers. First wood, but they take too long to grow, so he turned to grasses.
âGrasses can reach maturity in about three to four months, they are perennial and their stems have very good properties,â Drzal explains. âIn addition, they are biodegradable and can be recycled. There are plenty of advantages. “
He and his team were particularly interested in making what is known as a sheet molding compound. It is a polymer composite – which can be easily shaped and molded before being cured or cured – mixed with fibers to increase the strength and rigidity of the finished product.
For the sheet molding compound, carbon fibers have the best properties. They also come with a hefty price tag. Glass fibers, on the other hand, offer good strength at a more economical cost. As a result, fiberglass has established itself as the most widely used material and, therefore, the benchmark against which Drzal would compare its new composites using plant fibers.
Carbon fibers have the best properties for the sheet molding compound but are prohibitively expensive for a cost saving project. Glass fibers offer good resistance at a lower cost. As a result, it is the most widely used fiber and the benchmark for the MSU team.
However, manufacturing fiberglass is energy intensive. Glass fibers must be treated at high temperature while being abrasive on machining equipment. Plant fibers can be processed under softer conditions, reducing energy costs and equipment maintenance.
About ten years ago, Drzal worked with an analyst to show that if grass-based composites worked well enough to get automakers to pay a modest price for plants, it would be a boon to agriculture. This analysis looked at a perennial grass called miscanthus or silvergrass.
âIt’s an herb that grows wild in Michigan,â he says. âYou usually see it along the highway in Michigan. It grows six feet tall, and it doesn’t need fertilizer or insecticide. If farmers have land where they cannot grow food crops, they could plant this grass. If they could sell it for five cents a pound, we have shown that it can compete with wheat in terms of income.
By Stages, Ford, which has a portfolio of plant-based materials including a wheat straw composite – purchased from farmers in Ontario, Canada, in abundance – for storage bins on the Ford Flex . The company also introduced headlight covers for the Lincoln Continental made from a composite incorporating coffee bean pods, or flakes, purchased from McDonald’s coffee suppliers.
Ford will market parts made from the sheet molding compound that Drzal and his team’s research led to the creation.
âMSU and Ford have enjoyed a strong relationship for many years, and it shows through the success of projects like this one,â said Brice Nelson, director of corporate partnerships for the MSU Innovation Center. The MSU-Ford Alliance partnership began in 2014 and has resulted in more than 100 projects, said Nelson, who helped forge the alliance. âThis is a great example of how our research is getting into the commercial market. “
Many MSU students were part of the research team for this project, and Ford internship students are the cornerstone of the partnership. Sustainability technical researcher at Ford’s Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn Debbie Mielewski, who has worked on the collaboration, says she only works with universities that send students as interns.
Mielewski and other Ford mentors can introduce students to MSU academic advisers with common research interests when students return to school. In return, students gain experience and education to help them launch their careers, even if those careers are outside of the automotive industry.
âPart of the experience is learning that the job can be fun if you find the right passion for you,â says Mielewski. âHaving a career doesn’t have to be a scary thing. “