NANJING, China—In the auto industry’s endless pursuit of stronger, lighter materials, next-generation metal composites and plastics aren’t always enough.
Working on alternatives to synthetic innovations, Ford Motor Co. has enlisted support from an unlikely source—placing a bet on the world’s tallest grass.
“Bamboo is amazing,” said Janet Yin, a materials engineering supervisor at Ford’s Nanjing Research & Engineering Centre. “It’s strong, flexible, totally renewable, and plentiful in China and many other parts of Asia.”
The plant has been used in all sorts of human endeavours for millennia and has recently found its way into a wide range of re-imagined contemporary products—from coffee filters to bicycle frames. Bamboo can grow as much as three feet in a single day and takes just two to five years to reach maturity, easily outpacing trees and giving the flowering plant strong sustainability credentials.
Though high-tech materials such as carbon fiber and gorilla glass have recently made their automotive debuts, the U.S. automaker and its suppliers have been working with naturally-tough bamboo over the past several years, looking for ways to integrate the fast-growing forest product into vehicle interiors.
By combining bamboo with plastics, Ford says it has been able to create “super hard” materials that outperform synthetic and other natural fibers in a range of materials tests, including tensile strength and impact strength tests. The bamboo-plastic composite has also been heated to more than 212 F (100 C) to ensure if maintains its integrity when exposed to high temperatures.
Following the successful tests, Ford says the material could soon find its way into vehicle interiors, though it did not release a timeline.
Ford already uses a number of other natural materials in its vehicles, including rice hulls to reinforce plastic in the F-150’s electrical harness, soy-based foams in certain seat cushions and cellulose tree fibers in the Lincoln MKX armrest.
Last year it began working with tequila maker Jose Cuervo to develop auto parts from agave.