Ford and MSU Collaborate on Plant-based Composite for Car Parts

Michigan State University in East Lansing and Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn announced a collaboration with the goal of creating new polymers and composites for the automotive industry using sustainable, natural materials.
a green car concept
Michigan State University and Ford announced a partnership to create a new polymer for car parts made out of natural, sustainable materials. // Courtesy of MSU

Michigan State University in East Lansing and Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn announced a collaboration with the goal of creating new polymers and composites for the automotive industry using sustainable, natural materials.

Lawrence Drzal, a university distinguished professor in the College of Engineering’s Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Department, has been working to reduce the costs of composites used in cars for decades. He didn’t want to trade off on performance, and he focused his attention on plant fibers. First wood, but they take too long to grow, so he shifted to grasses.

“Grasses can grow to maturity in about three to four months, they’re perennial, and their stems have very good properties,” says Drzal. “Plus they’re biodegradable and can be recycled. There are a whole lot of benefits.”

He and his team were particularly interested in making what’s called sheet molding compound. It is a composite of polymer — which can be easily shaped and molded before it is hardened or cured — mixed with fibers to boost the strength and stiffness of finished product.

For sheet molding compound, carbon fibers have the best properties. They also come with a steep price tag. Glass fibers, meanwhile, provide good strength at a more economical cost. As a result, glass fibers have established themselves as the most widely used material and, thus, the benchmark against which Drzal would compare his new composites using plant fibers.

Carbon fibers possess the best properties for sheet molding compound but are prohibitively expensive for a project aimed at reducing costs. Glass fibers provide good strength at a lower cost. Due to this, it is the most widely used fiber, and the benchmark for the MSU team.

The manufacturing of glass fibers, however, is energy intensive. Glass fibers need to be processed at high temperatures while being abrasive on machining equipment. Plant fibers can be processed under gentler conditions, reducing the money spent on energy and maintaining equipment.

About ten years ago, Drzal worked with an analyst to show that if grass-based composites performed well enough to entice auto makers to pay a modest price for the plants, it’d be a boon for agriculture. This analysis examined a perennial grass called miscanthus or silvergrass.

“It’s a grass that grows wild in Michigan,” he says. “You typically see it along the side of the road in Michigan. It grows six feet high, and it doesn’t need fertilizer or insecticide. If farmers have land where they can’t grow food crops, they could plant this grass. If they could sell it for five cents a pound, we showed it could compete with wheat in terms of income.”

In steps Ford, which has a plant-based materials portfolio that includes a composite made of wheat straw — purchased from farmers in Ontario, Canada with abundant supplies of it — for storage bins on the Ford Flex. The company has also introduced headlight covers for the Lincoln Continental made from a composite that integrates coffee bean husks, or chaff, purchased from McDonald’s coffee suppliers.

Ford will be commercializing parts made from the sheet molding compound that Drzal and his team’s research led to the creation of.

“MSU and Ford have had a strong relationship for many years, and that shows through the success of projects like this,” says 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, says Nelson, who helped forge the alliance. “This is a great example of how our research makes it into the commercial market.”

Many MSU students were part of the research team on this project, and students interning at Ford is a bedrock of the partnership. Technical fellow of sustainability at Ford’s Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn Debbie Mielewski, who worked on the collaboration, says she only works with universities that send students as interns.

Mielewski and other mentors at Ford can introduce students to MSU faculty advisers with shared research interests when the students return to school. In return, students gain experiences and education to help launch their careers, even if those careers are outside of automotive.

“Part of the experience is learning that work can be fun if you find the right passion for you,” says Mielewski. “Having a career doesn’t have to be a scary thing.”