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Why Ford wants to make car parts out of a tequila factory’s leftovers

A 2012 Ford truck is displayed at Serramonte Ford in Colma, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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This story has been updated.

When it comes to developing more environmentally friendly automobiles, electric cars and renewable fuels are some of the common solutions that come to mind. But a set of new initiatives from the Ford Motor Co. are tackling the issue in a different way. By using recycled carbon dioxide and discarded plant matter to produce certain car parts, Ford hopes to reduce the carbon footprint of its vehicles and maybe even produce lighter, more fuel-efficient cars.

The idea of recycling carbon dioxide is no new concept. Climate and energy experts have long argued that “carbon capture” — the practice of snagging carbon emissions from factories and other industrial sources before they escape into the atmosphere — could play a key role in transitioning to a carbon-neutral world and meeting global climate goals. The practice has already been adopted in various countries around the world, including at a limited number of facilities in the United States.

Typically, carbon dioxide that’s captured from industrial sources is either stored underground or, more commonly, reused in the process of oil and natural gas extraction.

But Ford’s proposal is a bit different. In May, the company announced its plans to use captured carbon dioxide to produce foams and plastics for its vehicles, and so store it in the cars themselves, rather than in the ground. It’s working with chemistry company Novomer (which has been already been working with Ford on other projects for years) to make it happen, and claims to be the first automaker to do so.

So far, the company has been able to produce foam in the laboratory that matches or surpasses the traditional petroleum-based foams that Ford typically uses in its vehicles, according to Debbie Mielewski, Ford’s senior technical leader of sustainable materials.

So far, at least on an experimental level, the developers have succeeded in replacing about half the petroleum in their foam with carbon dioxide. However, the foams have yet to be used in commercially available vehicles, and it may be several years before this occurs. According to Mielewski, Ford has been collaborating with Novomer for about four years now, and she estimates that it may be five years or so before this particular technology could be ready for production.

These foams go into everything from seat cushions and headrests to instrument panels, according to Mielewski. “There’s about 30 pounds of foam on every vehicle that we build, and globally there’s over 5 million vehicles that Ford makes, and so it adds up to be quite a bit,” she said.

The main idea in this case is that eventually incorporating these components into real cars would provide a practical use for carbon dioxide that otherwise would end up in the atmosphere, while also cutting down on the overall amount of petroleum required to produce a vehicle. In other words, using the foams would offset carbon emissions from other sources (although they wouldn’t necessarily do anything to reduce the emissions that the cars produce by burning fuel).  

Mielewski is optimistic that on a large enough scale, these efforts could make a real difference for the climate.

“My estimate for the future: There’s 300 pounds of plastic on the typical vehicle,” she noted. “I think about 100 pounds, or a third of that, could be replaced with a carbon dioxide polymer. So if you look at 5 million, 6 million vehicles … that ends up being 600 million pounds of plastic that is sequestering carbon dioxide.”

Other experts are more cautious, though.

If the carbon dioxide is from a fossil fuel plant, then you delay the CO2 emissions by the lifetime of the car, but create uncertainty afterward,” said Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University, in an email to The Washington Post. Any number of fates could await that carbon dioxide after the car is retired.

“You might landfill it, you may recycle it, you may run it through a waste incineration plant, you may collect the CO2 again from the flue gas,” he pointed out. According to Mielewski, the foams last more or less indefinitely once they’re produced, unless they’re incinerated or otherwise destroyed.

Lackner also noted that the carbon emissions produced by fuel burning in those same cars over their lifetimes would far outweigh the amount of captured carbon dioxide incorporated into their production. But overall, he said he feels the idea is a helpful one.

“You could say that in the world’s carbon budget, car hoods and car seats represent a reservoir of stored carbon whose size is determined by the number of cars on the road,” he said by email. “This can be viewed as a form of carbon sequestration in the human infrastructure. It may not be permanent, but it is a dynamic reservoir that could hold a certain amount of carbon virtually indefinitely.”

In addition to captured carbon dioxide, Ford also hopes to begin using discarded agave plant parts in its vehicle production. Just days ago, the company announced a new partnership with tequila maker Jose Cuervo to explore using the leftover bits of agave plants, which are used to make tequila, in bioplastics, which could then be incorporated into certain car parts.  According to Mielewski, the two companies have been working together for close to a year now. The project is still in its early phases, although some initial assessments of the agave material have been conducted.

Ford already uses other types of plants, including soy, in components such as seat cushions. And it’s not the only automaker to experiment with bioplastics. Toyota, for instance, has also invested in the development of plant-derived materials for use in seat cushions and various other parts. Several years ago, it announced plans to begin using a newly developed sugar-cane-based material in some interior surfaces. Other automakers, including Mazda and Fiat, have made similar investments. 

But this may be the first time agave has been explored for use in bioplastics by the automotive industry, said David Grewell, an Iowa State University professor and co-director of the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites.  

Using agave fibers in plastics would help cut down on wasted plant material on Jose Cuervo’s end. But Mielewski noted that the bioplastics may also be lighter in weight than petroleum-based plastics, which could improve the fuel efficiency of vehicles.  

As an added bonus, Grewell also added that bioplastics, in general, can have superior mechanical properties and impact strength. And he said research into agave fibers, specifically, has suggested that they have “unique mechanical properties,” which would make them promising candidates for use in machines like automobiles.  

In addition to benefiting the environment, investments in the new technologies may be a business savvy move for Ford as well. As fossil fuel resources continue to dwindle in the future, inevitably driving oil prices higher, investments in alternatives are likely to save the company money in the long term.

Paired together, both Ford initiatives could represent the next step in green automotive advancements.

“[If] there are alternatives that have sometimes better properties for various applications, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that are lighter in weight and can help with fuel economy, why the heck wouldn’t we want to do this?” Mielewski said.

Chris Mooney contributed to this report.