Canadian Plastics

From coconut husks to car parts

It might be the most novel use of a coconut since Gilligan and the Professor transformed one into a radio. 

November 18, 2011   Canadian Plastics

It might be the most novel use of a coconut since Gilligan and the Professor transformed one into a radio. 

In an effort to reduce the use of petroleum and make the parts lighter and more natural-looking, the Ford Motor Co. has teamed up with branded consumer product manufacturer Scotts Miracle-Gro Company to incorporate coconut fibers as a renewable feedstock in molded plastic parts for Ford’s vehicles.   

The project draws on discarded coconut husks, also called coirs, a waste stream from Scotts’ soil and grass seed products. Scotts mixes coconut coir into one of its grass seed mixes, Turf Builder EZ Seed, and a planting soil, Miracle-Gro Expand ‘n’ Grow; the natural fibers hold 50 per cent more water than plain potting soil. (FYI, the company goes through more than 70 million pounds of coir a year in its consumer products.)

Once the coconut coir comes to Ford, researchers combine it with plastic to deliver additional reinforcement to the part while eliminating the need for some petroleum. Along with making use of a renewable resource and saving someone the job of having to bury or otherwise get rid of the husks, the new part is anticipated to be lighter in weight, thereby offering that all-important fuel saving opportunity. “This is a win-win situation,” said Dr. Ellen Lee, a Ford technical expert on plastics. “We’re taking a material that is a waste stream from another industry and using it to increase the sustainability in our vehicles.”

But here’s a twist: while just about every other bioplastic application you can name has a primary goal of looking exactly like a traditional petroleum-based plastic part, the natural long fibers of the coirs will remain visible in the plastic. If that strikes you as a manufacturing flaw…well, Ford disagrees, claiming the parts “will offer a more natural look than typical materials.”  

According to Ford, target applications of the coconut coir-plastic parts include door trim, seat trim, storage bins, centre console substrates (an unseen part under the finish trim), and possibly underbody panels or exterior trim. Ford is currently testing the coirs for durability, and also to see if the natural flame-resistant properties of coconut coir carry over to the manufactured composite.

While there’s no word yet on when the first commercial application will be ready, the project is the latest in a long line of Ford product initiatives that derive from recycled or growing – and sometimes edible – materials. Since 2008, Ford has offered soy foam seat cushions and head restraints; the soy content is now up to 20 per cent and the remainder is traditional petroleum-based foam. Ford is also working with wheat straw mixed into plastic, castor oil foam used in instrument panels, and recycled yarns on seat covers.

Gilligan and Co. might well be proud.


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