Jose Cuervo could help lighten up Fords

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Want to reduce weight and improve gas mileage in your Ford Focus? Just add tequila.

Ford Motor Co. and Jose Cuervo are taking a shot at making car parts from a byproduct of the agave plant used in the Mexican liquor. The resulting bioplastic is a cheaper, lighter-weight alternative to traditional plastics, and will be used for storage bins in cars, wiring harnesses and other parts.

Jose Cuervo earlier this year shipped boxes of its previously discarded fibers to Dearborn for testing. A Ford team is working to understand all the benefits and uses for the agave material.

“It’s as versatile as some of the other components we’ve used,” said Debbie Mielewski, Ford’s senior technical leader for sustainability research. “It really does contribute to less greenhouse gases.”

Agave plants take seven years to grow, and Jose Cuervo harvests about 200-300 tons per day. It roasts the heart of the plant, then grinds it and extracts the juices for distillation.

A small percentage of the leftover fibers are used as compost or sold to local artisans to make crafts or agave paper, but a majority of the remnants are usually burned or thrown away. Now, Ford is able to pay for the materials and provide the local farmers a new revenue stream.

Mielewski said the agave can be turned into a tough, durable material that is aesthetically pleasing when used in car interiors. The fibers themselves can be seen in the finished bioplastic. The parts weigh about 15 percent less than the talc or glass fibers it can replace, she said.

Ford has been turning strange materials into eco-friendly car parts since 2000.

Mielewski’s team had its first big breakthrough when it used soybean-based materials in the cushions of the 2008 model-year Mustang. Since then, her team has used everything from old blue jeans and coconut fiber to shredded money and dandelions.

The automaker has partnered with a number of companies, including Coca-Cola Co., Nike Inc. and Procter & Gamble.

Recently, Ford has been studying fast-growing materials like bamboo and algae.

“There are about 400 pounds of plastic on a typical car,” Mielewski said. “Our job is to find the right place for a green composite like this to help our impact on the planet. It is work that I’m really proud of, and it could have broad impact across numerous industries.”

(313) 222-2401

Twitter: MikeMartinez_DN

Ford biomaterials

■Old denim and T-shirts become interior padding and sound insulation in most Fords.

■Tomato skins are used in wiring brackets and storage bins.

■Recycled plastic bottles become carpeting, wheel liners and shields in Transit, C-MAX, others.

■Old tires are used in seals and gaskets.

■Rice hulls reinforce plastic in F-150 electrical harnesses.

■Soy-based foams are used as seat cushions, seat backs and head restraints.

■Wheat straw reinforces storage bins in Flex.